Plastic-Eating Super Enzyme Could Help Solve the Plastic Waste Crisis
Scientists are on the brink of scaling up an enzyme that devours plastic. In the latest breakthrough, the enzyme degraded plastic bottles six times faster than previous research achieved, as The Guardian reported.
This new super-enzyme is able to break down plastic at room temperature, setting it apart from the enzyme that the French company Carbios discovered in April. As EcoWatch reported at the time, the Carbios enzyme started to work when the plastic was heated to 65 to 72 degrees Celsius, or 149 to 161 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the range when plastic bottles start to soften and melt.
The researchers worked doggedly to reengineer the enzymes of an enzyme first discovered in Japan in 2016. The scientists published their results Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the paper, they describe how the bacterium Idoenella sakaiensis produces two enzymes that thrive by consuming plastic bottles, according to Gizmodo.
The research holds tremendous promise for tackling the plastic waste crisis since the enzyme feeds on the type of plastic that water and soda bottles are made of, polyethylene terephthalate (PET). That type of plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade. The enzyme that the researchers enhanced can break the plastic down in just a few days, according to John McGeehan, the director of the Center for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, as The Telegraph reported.
"When we linked the enzymes, rather unexpectedly, we got a dramatic increase in activity," said McGeehan, as The Guardian reported. "This is a trajectory towards trying to make faster enzymes that are more industrially relevant. But it's also one of those stories about learning from nature, and then bringing it into the lab."
He was referring to the process that bacteria in nature use to devour polyesters, which occur in nature to protect plant leaves. "Bacteria have been evolving for millions of years to eat that," he said, as the BBC reported in April.
McGeehan added that the enzyme could help accelerate a sustainable model since it enables the plastics to be "made and reused endlessly, reducing our reliance on fossil resources," as The Independent in Ireland reported.
McGeehan believes that cooperation between researchers and corporations could help scale up the enzyme in the near future.
"If we can make better, faster enzymes by linking them together and provide them to companies like Carbios, and work in partnership, we could start doing this within the next year or two," he said, as The Guardian reported.
McGeehan and his team also believe their enhancements can be improved so the enzymes are able to consume plastic faster. By adjusting a bit of the residue on the enzyme's surface, it was able to work a bit faster, suggesting that further optimization is still down the road. A testing facility is under construction for McGeehan and his team in Portsmouth, while Carbios is building a plant in France to put the enzymes to use, according to The Guardian.
"The faster we can make the enzymes, the quicker we can break down the plastic, and the more commercially viable it will be," said McGeehan, as The Telegraph reported.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
Earth's ice is melting 57 percent faster than in the 1990s and the world has lost more than 28 trillion tons of ice since 1994, research published Monday in The Cryosphere shows.
By Jewel Fraser
Noreen Nunez lives in a middle-class neighborhood that rises up a hillside in Trinidad's Tunapuna-Piarco region.