The scientists in just such a scenario comprise an worldwide team that was working off of a 2016 discovery of the first bacterium that had naturally evolved to eat plastic.
Scientists from Portsmouth University and the Diamond Light Source are part of an global team that has engineered an enzyme with the potential to digest certain plastics. During this study, they unintentionally engineered an enzyme that is better still at degrading the plastic than the one that has already evolved.
While the mutant PETase is so far only about 20 percent more efficient at breaking down plastic than the naturally occurring enzyme, the team says the important thing is we now know these enzymes can be optimised and augmented.
"What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic", said Prof John McGeehan. "It means we won't need to dig up any more oil and, fundamentally, it should reduce the amount of plastic in the environment". "What we've learned is that PETase is not yet fully optimized to degrade PET-and now that we've shown this, it's time to apply the tools of protein engineering and evolution to continue to improve it".
The findings are reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (link down at time of writing).
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A high definition 3D model of the enzyme was created, using the powerful x-ray beamline at Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire. But if that hunger happens to be for the plastic used to make single-use bottles - something that doesn't generally degrade in nature and is basically the scourge of modern humanity - I'd say break out the champagne and cigars.
But instead of getting angry, let's get motivated - let's make 2018 the year we break free from plastic packaging like this!
This led to a serendipitous change in the enzyme's actions - allowing its plastic-eating abilities to work faster.
For instance, the tweaked PETase is also able to break down a PET substitute called PEF (polyethylene furandicarboxylate), which the natural PETase can't process.
The discovery could be a step toward eliminating the huge swaths of plastic waste often found floating in oceans or washed up on beaches all over the world, the researchers said.
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"We can all play a significant part in dealing with the plastic problem, but the scientific community who ultimately created these "wonder materials" must now use all the technology at their disposal to develop real solutions".
The team behind the research at Portsmouth University includes PhD students and even undergraduates, and when I visited their lab their excitement was infectious.
"What actually turned out was we improved the enzyme, which was a bit of a shock", said lead researcher John McGeehan, a professor at the University of Portsmouth in the UK.
While probing the molecular structure of PETase, the United Kingdom team inadvertently created a powerful new version of the protein.
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