Plastic-eating bacteria

Plastic materials are useful in a wide variety of applications, however they present one of the world’s greatest environmental challenges. Plastic pollution is seriously harmful to both land ecosystems and waterways, and animals are injured when they become entangled in or ingest these materials. Although recycling partially addressed the issue, researchers have developed an enzyme which can digest polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics, the widely used material in drink bottles.

The enzyme, known as PETase, was first discovered in a Japanese waste recycling centre from a bacterium which had seemingly evolved to feed on plastics. Scientists from the University of Portsmouth have conducted recent studies to better understand the active regions of this molecule. Through the use of X-ray beams, a blueprint of the enzyme structure was examined allowing the researchers to determine structural regions which could be optimised. Minor residues were modified on the PETase by-structure enhancing the enzyme’s performance.

Since PET plastics contribute to the majority of plastic pollution, the development of PET-digesting enzymes could become a highly effective solution. Currently, the digestion process proceeds for multiple days, which hinders the economic viability of PETase, and methods for mass production must also be developed if it is to be used on a wider scale.

Read more: University of Portsmouth / PNAS / BBC / The Economist

Image: Pixabay / CC0-1.0 – PET bottle

This story is taken from the 20 April 2018 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.