Plastic-eating enzyme could help in fighting pollution

An enzyme engineered by researchers may in future help in rapidly recycling mountains of discarded plastics that threaten environment. Scientists stumbled upon the solution while examining the structure of a natural enzyme PETase which was used by bacteria in a Japanese waste recycling centre to feed on plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. The enzyme they engineered worked better in breaking down plastics. But more researches are needed to improve the enzyme so that it can be used industrially to break down PET plastics in seconds.

The research was led by teams at the University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). They created an ultra-high-resolution 3D model of the PETase enzyme. By teaming with Diamond Light Source in the UK which has one of the most advanced X-ray beamlines in the world, scientists were able to view the 3D atomic structure of PETase in great detail. This inspired them to engineer a faster and more efficient enzyme. The breakthrough came with a lab-made PETase mutant which worked better than the natural PETase in degrading plastics.

Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth said the scientific community which ultimately created these ‘wonder-materials’ (plastics) must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions. Harry Austin, the paper’s lead author and a postgraduate student, said he is delighted to be part of an international team that is tackling one of the biggest problems facing our planet.