Scientists Have Accidentally Created a Mutant Enzyme That Eats Plastic Bottles

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Scientists have developed an enzyme which is able to "digest" some of the planet's most commonly polluting plastics. Undertaken by teams at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the U.K.'s University of Portsmouth, the research could potentially lead to a "recycling solution" for plastic bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which lingers in the environment for hundreds of years.

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The researchers were initially examining the crystal structure of PETase, an enzyme that can digest PET, in order to understand how it works. But during their research, the scientists managed to engineer an enzyme that was more effective at "degrading" the plastic than the naturally occurring one, which was recently discovered in the soil of a Japanese recycling plant.

“Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception,” John McGeehan, director of the Institute of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth, said in a statement Monday. “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.”


Bottle breakdown. Illustration: P. Huey. Reprinted with permission from U.T. Bornscheuer, Science 351:1154 (2016)


The University of Portsmouth said that the "mutant" enzyme was also able to degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate, which is a bio-based substitute for PET plastics. Funding for the research came from the University of Portsmouth, the NREL and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Colin Miles, head of strategy for Industrial Biotechnology at the BBSRC, described the work as a “highly novel piece of science.”


“It will be interesting to see whether, based on this study, the performance of the enzyme can be improved and made suitable for industrial-scale application in the recycling and the future circular economy of plastic,” Miles added. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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