Scientists Create ‘Super Enzymes’ to Fight Plastic Waste

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  • With global concern over plastic waste at an all-time high, scientists appear to have stumbled over an apparent solution… with “super enzymes” according to this report published by Bloomberg’s QuickTake: Now.

    Bloomberg QuickTake: Now published this video item, entitled “Scientists Create ‘Super Enzymes’ to Fight Plastic Waste” – below is their description.

    (AP) Plastic waste is one of the scourges of our time.

    It’s an eye sore, a health hazard and gobbles up precious natural resources in its production.

    So finding ways to break it down and recycle it is an environmental priority.

    In 2016, scientists in Japan discovered naturally occurring enzymes in bacteria which were capable of destroying plastic, but they weren’t powerful enough to be developed for an industrial process.

    Two years later, research led by teams at the University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) studying that enzyme, known as PETase, inadvertently engineered it to become even better at digesting plastics.

    Now they have gone one step further and combined PETase with another enzyme called MHETase to speed the process up.

    The University of Portsmouth team is led by John McGeehan, Professor of Structural Biology at and Director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation.

    He says the research drew inspiration from what has naturally evolved in nature.

    “We’re just copying from nature and bringing it back to the lab. So what we’ve done, we’ve taken two enzymes from a bacterium that lives off plastic in plastic recycling dumps, connected them together in our laboratories here in Portsmouth. And this enzyme, super enzyme, actually works really fast, about six times faster than the original enzyme that we’re looking at,” he explains.

    PETase and MHETase both work by breaking down PET plastics into their original building blocks.

    Theoretically, that means plastics could be recycled over and over again, reducing the need to create new plastics from fossil fuels.

    Mixing PETase and MHETase together doubled the speed of plastic degradation.

    But by actually engineering a connection between them, the process became even faster.

    “So what this new second enzyme does is it speeds up the process by about six times. That starts to make it really interesting in terms of taking it into a recycling facility to speed up the reaction,” says McGeehan.

    “Plastics in the environment can last hundreds of years. But clearly, if we can take things into a recycling plant, we need to get things done in a matter of hours in order to make that process viable.”

    McGeehan says his team is already working with industry to work out how this discovery can be used in the real world.

    He sees huge potential in using enzymes to fight against plastic waste.

    “So we’ve literally got around a hundred new enzymes in the lab that we’re currently developing and we’re trying to make them faster, stick them together in different (ways),” he says.

    “We know that some enzymes work really well on the surface and some work really well in like a mix solution, some work better on other plastics or mixed plastic. So we’re kind of hoping eventually to have a tool box of enzymes that we can deploy out to recycling industries. And we’ve started to work very closely with the recycling (industry) to develop these processes.”

    The study has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

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