With the hope of developing a solution to the world's chronic plastic pollution problem, British and American researchers chose to study the enzyme that the bacteria were using to digest this ubiquitous substance-and now they've made a stunning discovery.
So they mutated the PETase active site to make it more like cutinase, and unexpectedly found that this mutant enzyme was even better than the natural PETase at breaking down PET.
The discovery could lead to a recycling solution for the millions of tonnes of plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which will persist for hundreds of years in the environment. The natural enzyme is in a bacterium called Ideonella sakaiensis, which researchers recently found was degrading PET in a Japanese waste recycling center.
Working with the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the scientists subjected PETase to intense X-ray beams at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire.
"Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research and our discovery here is no exception, "says structural biologist John McGeehan from the University of Portsmouth in the UK".
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"What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic", said McGeehan.
PETase was also tested on PEF plastic, a proposed plant-based alternative to PET that is similarly slow to degrade in nature. The newly discovered enzyme promises to recycle plastic bottles back into new clear plastic bottles, which would require much less virgin plastic.
"And now that we've shown this, it's time to apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it".
Plastic takes centuries to biodegrade without human intervention, but the new enzyme is capable of accelerating the process to just a few days.
Increasing the volume of plastic that is recycled could significantly cut the amount that finds its way into the sea, which now stands at about a truck load every single minute worldwide.
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By contrast, the new synthetic enzyme could allow for plastic to be quickly - and endlessly - recycled.
Scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the US Energy Department´s National Renewable Energy Laboratory made a decision to focus on a naturally occurring bacterium discovered in Japan a few years ago.
"I think [the new research] is very exciting work, showing there is strong potential to use enzyme technology to help with society's growing waste problem", said Oliver Jones, a chemist at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and not part of the research team.
McGeehan's team reportedly tweaked the PETase to better understand its structure.
University of Portsmouth biologist Professor John McGeehan and his colleagues were attempting to verify the claim when they "accidentally created a super-powered version of the plastic-eating enzyme", The Independent reports.
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