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Riled Up is a journal of science, the environment, exploration, new technology, and related commentary.  Contributors include scientists, explorers, engineers, and others who provide perspectives and context not typically offered in general news circulation.  For interested readers, additional resources are included.

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Plastic-eating Enzymes

Plastic-eating Enzymes

Pacific Ocean plastic pollution (credit: YouTube)

Plastic pollution is one of the largest environmental problems on land and in the oceans. Its impact on wildlife and birds is tragic. When a giant whale died and washed up on a beach in Spain, its stomach held 64 pounds of plastic. Plastic can become 'atomized' into microscopic particles with the potential to become endocrine disrupters when they enter the ocean food chain having been eaten by fish. Attempts to control the spread of discarded plastic has led to various innovative projects. Examples like Fishing for Plastic and the 5 Gyres are exciting and pro-active but they are still small efforts compared to the extent of the problem.

A discovery has been made by laboratories that holds real promise for a biological and sustainable solution if it can be scaled-up to commercially viable levels. Researchers at the University of Portsmouth in the UK and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado discovered a natural bacterial containing an enzyme that can "eats" PET (polyethylene terephthalate), the petrochemical used in making plastics. Millions of tons in plastic bottles and other products are made globally with PET and it is estimated that a tiny fraction of these plastics, maybe 10%, are recycled with the bulk discarded.

Enzymes are natural catalysts that accelerate the rate of a chemical reactions. They affect the biological processes in cells and are widely used in many industries. Virtually all enzymes are proteins that can be manipulated using the tools of modern molecular biology and biochemistry. The Portsmouth researchers discovered their new catalyst while examining the structure of a bacterial enzyme that may have evolved in a Japanese waste recycling center. The bacteria used plastic as its food source. The investigators characterized the protein, manipulated its structure, to improve its rate and efficiency, and the bacteria degraded the plastic into simple carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The researchers speak about their discovery. Work remains for the enzyme to be used at a commercial scale but the need for environmental clean-up is vast. This complete research, Characterization and engineering of a plastic-degrading aromatic polyesterase, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is available: here. WHB

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