Portsmouth scientists tackle plastic waste
Monday September 28th, 2020
The scientists who re-engineered the plastic-eating enzyme PETase have now created an enzyme ‘cocktail’ which can digest plastic up to six times faster.
A second enzyme, found in the same rubbish dwelling bacterium that lives on a diet of plastic bottles, has been combined with PETase to speed up the breakdown of plastic. PETase breaks down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) back into its building blocks, creating an opportunity to recycle plastic infinitely and reduce plastic pollution and the greenhouse gases driving climate change.
PET is the most common thermoplastic, used to make single-use drinks bottles, clothing and carpets and it takes hundreds of years to break down in the environment, but PETase can shorten this time to days.
The initial discovery set up the prospect of a revolution in plastic recycling, creating a potential low-energy solution to tackle plastic waste. The team engineered the natural PETase enzyme in the laboratory to be around 20 percent faster at breaking down PET.
Now, the same trans-Atlantic team have combined PETase and its ‘partner’, a second enzyme called MHETase, to generate much bigger improvements: simply mixing PETase with MHETase doubled the speed of PET breakdown, and engineering a connection between the two enzymes to create a ‘super-enzyme’, increased this activity by a further three times.
The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
The team was co-led by the scientists who engineered PETase, Professor John McGeehan, Director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) at the University of Portsmouth, and Dr Gregg Beckham, Senior Research Fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the US.
Professor McGeehan said: “Gregg and I were chatting about how PETase attacks the surface of the plastics and MHETase chops things up further, so it seemed natural to see if we could use them together, mimicking what happens in nature.
“Our first experiments showed that they did indeed work better together, so we decided to try to physically link them, like two Pac-men joined by a piece of string.
You can also read about the University being awarded more Solent LEP funding here.