A group of scientists serendipitously created a more efficient plastic-eating enzyme
Saving the world one accidental discovery at a time
Apr 17, 2018
Alexander Fleming and penicillin, Percy Spencer and the microwave, Henri Becquerel and radioactivity—the list of scientists who changed the world with accidental discoveries is long and plenty. According to a study released Monday, Apr. 16, another group of researchers are joining this roster of serendipity scientists. And this time, they might just be saving the world.
With climate change making itself more and more apparent and pollution worsening by the day, scientists have been doubling down on their efforts to solve the world’s great, big plastic problem. One of these efforts is the study of Ideonella sakaiensis, a naturally occurring bacterium that feeds exclusively on a type of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Discovered in Japan a few years back, researchers from the University of Portsmouth in Britain and the US Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory were trying to understand how one of the enzymes found in Ideonella sakaiensis worked. This enzyme called PETase is what causes the bacteria to degrade PET or man-made plastic.
In their endeavor to figure out how PETase worked, they studied its structure using a powerful X-ray 10 billion times more brighter than the sun. Through this x-ray, they were able to make a three-dimensional model of the enzyme which showed the similar appearance of PETase and cutinase, another enzyme found in fungus and bacteria. The scientists mutated PETase make it more like cutinase.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how they unexpectedly created a mutant enzyme that’s better than PETase when it came to breaking down PET. This group of researchers are now improving their fortuitous plastic-eating enzyme creation in hopes of making it available for breaking down plastics in the industrial level.
Cheers to them.
Photos courtesy of Unsplash.com and DesigntoImprovelife.dk
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