Scientists genetically modify enzyme capable of breaking down plastic
This week, scientists announced that one of the world’s most vexing problems is a step closer to being solved.
For better or worse, man-made plastics have become ubiquitous thanks to their durable and lightweight nature and relative cheapness to produce. However disposing of plastic in an environmentally responsible way is a long standing and increasingly urgent problem.
Plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose and the plastic which is recycled has very limited use, such as fibres for clothing or carpets. Consequently, significant volumes of plastic end up in the environment. The charity Ocean Conservancy estimates that 8 million tonnes of plastic (nearly 1.5 times the mass of the Great Pyramid of Giza) enters the ocean each year on top of the 150 million tonnes of plastic already there. Recently, a study found that 93% of bottled water showed signs of pollution from microplastics – tiny fragments of synthetic polymers.
There has been a recent global awakening to the increasing crisis of plastic pollution. This week the UK government announced a £61.5 million initiative to research ways of stopping plastic waste entering oceans in tandem with a potential ban on single use plastics in England following a similar ban in Scotland in January. Other anti-plastic pollution policies have been introduced in China and India.
Scientists have also been searching for innovative solutions to the problem. This week, a research team led by the University of Portsmouth and the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) announced they had engineered an improved enzyme capable of digesting and breaking down plastics including polyethylene terephthalate (PET) into their constituent components. The enzyme itself has naturally adapted to be able to “eat” plastic and was first reported in 2016 after being discovered in a waste dump in Japan. The enzyme is able to hydrolyse the PET into two environmentally benign monomers: terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol.
The University of Portsmouth and NREL team used x-rays from a high powered synchrotron to examine the atomic structure of the enzyme and were able to identify the enzyme’s active site. While investigating whether mutating the enzyme’s active site would lessen the enzyme’s ability to degrade PET, the team discovered they had unexpectedly improved the enzyme instead so that the mutated enzyme could break down PET much faster than the naturally occurring enzyme.
We recently reported on how ending plastic pollution could be protected with patents. Although the original enzyme cannot be patented, as it was merely discovered, the improved enzyme can be patented as it has been genetically engineered. According to various press releases, the improved enzyme is the subject of a patent application. Unfortunately we won’t know for certain until the patent application is published, which will not be for at least several months. However a patent protecting the genetically modified enzyme is likely to be highly valuable, especially if an industrial scale recycling process can be made viable using the genetically modified enzyme.
If you would like advice on protecting your own innovation in this area, please do get in touch: our experienced Consumer Products & Manufacturing and Life Sciences teams will be happy to help.
This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.