New ‘Mutant Enzymes’ Could Solve Earth’s Plastics Problem

April 2018

You might call it a happy accident: As environmentalists urge the world to address the plastic pollution crisis, a team of researchers has unwittingly engineered an enzyme that may, one day, literally eat our troubles away.

Biologists at the U.K.’s University of Portsmouth were studying the structure of an enzyme that can break down polyester when they found a way to tweak it. The result, according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, is a “mutant enzyme” that can degrade plastics 20 percent more efficiently than its original form.

The enzyme comes from a bacteria, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, which was discovered in 2016 by Japanese researchers, who subsequently found that it could completely break down a thin layer of low-quality plastic within six weeks. Structural biologist John McGeehan and his team have now taken that enzyme and genetically engineered it so that it can begin the process in a matter of days. That kind of discovery is cause for excitement: It takes centuries for polyester, scientifically known as polyethylene terephthalate or PET, to degrade naturally.

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