Accidental Mutant Enzyme to Help in Eliminating Plastic Waste

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New study revealed that ‘PETase’ enzyme can significantly degrade plastic waste in short period of time as compared to natural process of decomposition

Researchers from the U.K. University of Portsmouth, the University of South Florida, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have engineered an enzyme for accelerating the process of plastic degradation. The team isolated ‘PETase’ enzyme from a bacterium found in a Japanese recycling plant in 2016. The research team explored the properties of the enzyme and developed mutant version of bacterial species that outperforms its natural counterpart. It was found that the enzyme can reduce the length of time to break down PET plastics in few days.

Plastic pollution is major environmental concern across the world. Millions tons of unrecycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles are left untreated persisting for hundreds of years before eventually decomposing. The mutated version of PETase is around 20% more efficient than the naturally occurring enzyme and the research team is working on increasing its efficiency for future. Functions of the enzyme were analyzed by using X-rays to generate an ultra-high resolution model of the enzyme at molecular level.

“We are currently in the early stages of optimizing this enzyme’s efficacy, however, our efforts are a very encouraging,” said H. Lee Woodcock, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of South Florida. “We were able to clearly show that PETase is both a viable mechanism for plastic biodegradation, and that it is susceptible to engineering for improved activity. We already have plans in place to continue this work and envision a multi-fold improvement in the ability to recycle plastics in the near future.” However, Woodcock said that there are no immediate plans to commercialize this biotechnology, as further research is in process. The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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