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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The promising enzyme to help fight the crisis of plastic

Por Rory

A group of scientists from the United Kingdom and the United States accidentally modified an enzyme that digests the plastic and were surprised with the results. The researchers were studying the bacterium Ideonella sakaiensis, discovered in a landfill in Japan in 2016 that had evolved to feed on plastic waste. The objective was to try to understand how one of its enzymes, called "PETase", worked in order to unravel its structure.

Unintentionally, they ended up designing an enzyme that is much faster in the digestion of the material known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), with which most plastic bottles are manufactured. These mutant enzymes took a few days to start the decomposition process, in contrast to the centuries that the plastic remains in the oceans until it is degraded. A high-definition 3D model of the enzyme was created by using a powerful X-ray beam, in Oxfordshire, England.

Polyethylenes, produced from petroleum, are widely used in bottles and in the textile industry. In the current recycling processes, the materials are losing quality every time they start the cycle. The bottles are transformed into threads, then into carpets or fabrics and finally they are left in a landfill. The PETase enzymes reverse the process reducing the material to its original state, ready to be used again. The scientists also carried out tests with an alternative product to plastic, polyethylene furanoate (PEF), whose process of natural degradation is equally slow. "We are amazed with what we have done, because this enzyme works even better in PEF than in PET," Professor John McGeehan, who was part of the research team, told the BBC. "That could be used to make more plastic and avoid using more oil, we're basically shortening the cycle," McGeehan added.

It is estimated that 8 million tons of plastics end up in the ocean each year and more work is still needed to be able to use this enzyme on a large scale. The next challenge for scientists is to accelerate the process so that it is economically viable. Professor McGeehan believes that this is the beginning of a big change in the handling of plastics. "We have an urgent need to reduce the amount of plastics that end up in landfills and in the environment and I think we will have a solution in the future if we adopt those technologies," he added.