According to a study done by Professor John McGeehan, the Director of the Center for Enzyme Innovation at the University of Portsmouth, and Dr. Gregg Beckham, a Senior Research Fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a new enzyme has been manufactured that can break down trash at rapid speeds and with great effectiveness.
In previous years, scientists discovered and worked on PETase, an enzyme that breaks down PET, a material needed to produce lots of one-time-use plastic items. PETase can break down PET, which stands for polyethylene terephthalate, since the enzyme returns the molecule to its monomer form through depolymerization, a process meant to convert polymers into monomers by increasing the levels of thermal energy. PETase transformed the process of breaking down plastic by being able to do what nature can in 100 plus years in only a few days. As we have learned in our AP Biology class this year, breaking down polymers into monomers is an important process of life. Whether it takes place in our digestive system or in attempts to recycle trash, depolymerization essentially is one aspect of biology that allows life to take place.
Inspired to do more research because of the success with PEtase, the same group of scientists has discovered MHETase, another enzyme that helps to break down waste through the same process as PETase. As we know from class, an enzyme is a typ of protein that speeds up chemical reactions. So when they combined PETase with MHETase, PET was broken down in half of the time that it took PETase alone to break down PET. After that, the scientists physically constructed bonds between PETase and MEHtase by using a microscopic X-ray system in order to be able to see at such a molecular level, and the process of breaking down PET became three times more efficient than when the PETase and the MEHtase were simply just mixed together. This new combination of PETase and MEHtase is commonly referred to as a “super-enzyme” or the enzyme “cocktail”.
Not only do PETase and MEHtase work well together since they both break down PET, but they both break down PET through different strategies. Together, PETase and MEHtase help to quickly and effectively return the PET to its original, monomer form. Separately, PETase will deconstruct the surface of the PET molecules, while MEHtase will help deconstruct the molecule in its entirety. As a team, PETase and MEHtase will allow for the plastic items containing PET to be recycled and reused, breaking the cycle of disposing of plastics and the initiation of factories to make more.
As waste truly begins to pile up on Earth, a “super-enzyme” like PETase with MEHtase certainly gives all people some hope for the future of our planet. The whole decomposition process can be made so much faster and so much more efficient with the new enzyme “cocktail”, and hopefully, the production of plastic and PET slows due to this new, groundbreaking discovery. Let us all think upon the effects that this super-enzyme can have; what will be your next steps towards a waste-reduced planet?