In the search for scientific solutions to the plastic pollution crisis, momentum like this is vital.
Prof. John McGeehan, an X-ray crystallographer at the University of Portsmouth, stands next to equipment at the Diamond Light Source, the United Kingdom national synchrotron, that he used to reveal the atomic structure of an enzyme his team has engineered to digest a common form of plastic.
The battle against plastic pollution has taken an unexpected turn as an global scientist team develops an enzyme which naturally digests PET as its main energy source.
Japanese researchers believe the bacterium evolved fairly recently in a waste recycling center, since plastics were not invented until the 1940s.
When the team tweaked the structure of the enzyme by adding some amino acids, tests showed that it made the molecule even better at breaking down PET plastic. "Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics".
Industrial enzymes are widely used in, for example, washing powders and biofuel production, They have been made to work up to 1,000 times faster in a few years, the same timescale McGeehan envisages for the plastic-eating enzyme. (Let that sink in for just a second.) We recycle a measly 14 percent of that, much of the rest ending up in the ocean, which is slowly becoming a giant pot of animal-killing plastic soup.
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The findings are reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (link down at time of writing). But, more significantly, it can also degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF) - a bio-based substitute for PET plastics being hailed as a replacement for glass bottles.
Using a super-powerful X-ray, 10 billion times brighter than the Sun, they were able to make an ultra-high-resolution three-dimensional model of the enzyme.
Polythylene terephthalate or PET is one of the worst man-made plastics for recycling taking hundreds of years to break down into the environment. A patent has been filed on the specific mutant enzyme by the Portsmouth researchers and those from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.
McGeehan and colleagues were examining the structure of the natural, PET-degrading enzyme when they found they could increase the degradation rate by manipulating the chemical structure of the enzyme. And the problem with the recycled plastic is that it can only be turned into fiber that is used in other applications; think carpeting, fleece and tote bags.
"Enzymes are non-toxic, biodegradable and can be produced in large amounts by microorganisms", said Oliver Jones, an expert in analytical chemistry at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University.
He also said, "There is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society's growing waste problem by breaking down some of the most commonly used plastics".