Plas­tic-eat­ing en­zyme to fight pol­lu­tion

Khaleej Times - - FRONT PAGE -

lon­don — Sci­en­tists in Britain and the United States say they have en­gi­neered a plas­tic-eat­ing en­zyme that could in fu­ture help in the fight against pol­lu­tion.

The en­zyme is able to di­gest poly­eth­yl­ene tereph­tha­late, or PET — a form of plas­tic patented in the 1940s and now used in mil­lions of tonnes of plas­tic bot­tles. PET plas­tics can per­sist for hun­dreds of years in the en­vi­ron­ment and cur­rently pol­lute large ar­eas of land and sea world­wide.

Re­searchers from Britain’s Uni­ver­sity of Portsmouth and the US Depart­ment of En­ergy’s Na­tional Re­new­able En­ergy Lab­o­ra­tory made the dis­cov­ery while ex­am­in­ing the struc­ture of a nat­u­ral en­zyme thought to have evolved in a waste re­cy­cling cen­tre in Japan.

Find­ing that this en­zyme was help­ing a bac­te­ria to break down, or di­gest, PET plas­tic, the re­searchers de­cided to “tweak” its struc­ture by adding some amino acids, said John McGee­han, a pro­fes­sor at

Portsmouth who co-led the work.

This led to a serendip­i­tous change in the en­zyme’s ac­tions — al­low­ing its plas­tic-eat­ing abil­i­ties to work faster.

“We’ve made an im­proved ver­sion of the en­zyme bet­ter than the nat­u­ral one al­ready,” McGee­han said in an in­ter­view. “That’s re­ally ex­cit­ing be­cause that means that there’s po­ten­tial to op­ti­mise the en­zyme even fur­ther.”

The team, whose find­ing was pub­lished on Mon­day in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences jour­nal, is now work­ing on im­prov­ing the en­zyme fur­ther to see if they can make it ca­pa­ble of break­ing down PET plas­tics on an in­dus­trial scale.

“It’s well within the pos­si­bil­ity that in the com­ing years we will see an in­dus­tri­ally vi­able process to turn PET, and po­ten­tially other (plas­tics), back into their orig­i­nal build­ing blocks so that they can be sus­tain­ably re­cy­cled,” McGee­han said.

‘Strong po­ten­tial’

In­de­pen­dent sci­en­tists not di­rectly in­volved with the re­search said it was ex­cit­ing, but cau­tioned that the en­zyme’s de­vel­op­ment as a po­ten­tial so­lu­tion for pol­lu­tion was still at an early stage.

“En­zymes are non-toxic, biodegrad­able and can be pro­duced in large amounts by micro­organ­isms,” said Oliver Jones, a Mel­bourne Uni­ver­sity chem­istry ex­pert.

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