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. The team's plan was to tweak the enzyme to see how it evolved, but it seems that their efforts at trying to better understand the enzyme inadvertently resulted in creating a more effective enzyme.
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Lead scientist prof John McGeehan, from Portsmouth university, said: 'Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research, and our discovery is no exception. But when the team manipulated the enzyme to explore this connection, they accidentally improved its ability to eat PET.
Plastic takes centuries to biodegrade without human intervention, but the new enzyme is capable of accelerating the process to just a few days. The team used the Diamond Light Source, near Oxford, UK, an intense beam of X-rays that is 10bn times brighter than the sun and can reveal individual atoms.
Professor Adisa Azapagic of the University of Manchester, UK, likewise agreed that the enzyme could prove useful, but stated concern that it could lead to other forms of pollution: "A full life-cycle assessment would be needed to ensure the technology does not solve one environmental problem - waste - at the expense of others, including additional greenhouse gas emissions".
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Using their latest laboratory, beamline I23, an ultra-high-resolution 3D model of the PETase enzyme was generated in exquisite detail.
"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", McGeehan said.
"We've made an improved version of the enzyme better than the natural one already", Professor McGeehan told Reuters.
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has recently notified the amendments in Plastic Waste Management Rules 2018. Significantly, the enzyme can also degrade PEF, a bio-based substitute for PET plastics that is being hailed as a replacement for glass beer bottles. To test this theory, the researchers mutated the PETase and that was when the unexpected happened.
"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.