One man's trash is this enzyme's lunch.
The global team, led by Professor John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth, UK, tested the evolutionary process of the enzyme, inadvertently discovering that they had improved the capabilities of the enzyme in breaking down PET bottles.
Scientists have created a mutant enzyme that breaks down plastic drinks bottles - by accident.
"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", said Prof McGeehan.
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This means that plastic can be quickly broken down into its constituent parts and put back together to make new bottles and other products - making recycling considerably more efficient than it is at the moment. The U.S. and United Kingdom results were published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal and then announced in a Portsmouth University news release.
Researchers created the plastic-digesting protein accidentally while investigating its natural counterpart.
Working with the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the scientists subjected PETase to intense X-ray beams at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire.
Portsmouth University and NREL collaborated with scientists at the Diamond Light Source.
"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", McGeehan told The Guardian.
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PET, patented as a plastic in the 1940s, has not existed in nature for very long, so the team set out to determine how the enzyme evolved and if it might be possible to improve it.
Yet despite this, the amount of waste plastic in the oceans could treble in the next 10 years unless urgent action is taken to curb the problem.
"These enzymes are not abundantly present in nature, so you would need to produce the enzyme first, then add it to the PET plastic to degrade it", Wim Soetaert, head of the Industrial Biotechnology Centre at the University of Ghent, pointed out.
"What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme", said Professor John McGeehan, professor of Structural Biology and co-director of the Institute of Biomedical & Bimolecular Science at the University of Portsmouth, who led the research. "It is so easy for manufacturers to generate more of that stuff, rather than even try to recycle".
Independent scientists not directly involved with the research said it was exciting, but they cautioned that the enzyme's development as a potential solution for pollution was still at an early stage.
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The engineered enzyme has the added benefit of being able to degrade polyethylene furandicarboxylate (PEF), a PET alternative that has been floated as a replacement for glass beer bottles.