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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Plastic-eating Enzyme

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Tuesday, April 17, 2018/Categories: wildlife conservation, birds, marine life, sustainability, art and design, environment

       

                                            Pacific Ocean Plastic Pollution (credit: YouTube)

Plastic pollution is one of the largest environmental problems on land and in the oceans. Its impact on wildlife and birds is tragic as recently seen when a whale died and washed up on a Spanish beach with 64 pounds of plastic in its stomach. Plastic can also become 'atomized' into microscopic particles with the potential to become endocrine disruptors when they enter the food chain when eaten. Attempts to control the spread of the discarded plastic has led to various innovative projects including Fishing for Plastic and 5-Gyers but these are still small compared to the extent of the problem. A new discovery made by laboratories in United Kingdom and America holds real promise for a biological and sustainable solution if it can be commercially scaled.

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth in Britain and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado discovered a natural bacterial containing an enzyme that can "eat" PET (polyethylene terephthalate), the petrochemical used in making plastic. Millions of tons in bottles and other plastic products are made with PET globally and it is estimated that a tiny fraction of these plastic products, maybe 10%, are recycled with the bulk discarded.

Enzymes are natural catalysts that accelerate the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed by the process. They catalyze biological processes in cells and are widely used in industrial processes. Virtually all enzymes are proteins which can be manipulated using the tools of modern molecular biology and biochemistry. The Portsmouth researchers identified the new catalyst while examining the structure of a bacterial enzyme that may have evolved in a waste recycling center in Japan. The bacteria could use plastic as its food source. The labs characterized the new protein, manipulated its biochemical structure to improve its catalytic rate and efficiency, and the bacteria degraded the plastic into its building blocks of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The researchers spoke about their new discovery themselves:

Work remains for the new enzyme to be used at a commercial scale but the need for environmental clean-up and restoration is vast. This research, Characterization and engineering of a plastic-degrading aromatic polyesterase, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and can be read: here

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