In an exciting new breakthrough, researchers at the University of Manchester have discovered how engineered bacteria cells could reduce our plastic waste and contribute to our global recycling efforts.
Plastic poses a particular problem for several reasons. Due to its chemical structure, plastic can be challenging to break down, with small molecules known as monomers bonding together to form polymers. On top of this, not all plastic can currently be recycled, therefore it is often sent to landfill or incinerated, consequently having a major impact on our environment and wildlife.
However in an encouraging new discovery, researchers from the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology have found a key protein which could be used to help break down plastic. This protein is involved in the cellular uptake of the monomer terephthalate (TPA), which is what would essentially help to break down the plastic.
To identify the protein, the researchers used techniques which allowed them to study the TphC in both open and closed formations upon TPA binding. They also used genome mining approaches (a genome is the complete set of genetic information in an organism) to discover enzymes and homologous transporter proteins involved in TPA breakdown and absorption. Using these techniques allows the scientists to build up a picture of how the process would work within the engineered bacteria, as well as helping to gather any relevant information to be used for future biotechnological engineering efforts. Looking towards the future, researchers plan to use their findings to support the development of engineered microbial cells for bio-remediation and bio-based recycling of plastic waste.
Dr Neil Dixon, lead author of the research said: “Understanding how bacteria recognise and degrade xenobiotic chemicals, is important both from an ecological and biotechnological perspective. Understanding at a molecular level how these plastic breakdown products are imported into bacteria cells means that we can then use transporters in engineered cells for bioremediation applications to address pressing environment concerns.”
Overall, this new research lights a beacon of hope for towards the development of an improved and more sustainable plastic recycling system. A future where microbial degradation of plastics could be possible, helping to combat the problem of ever-increasing plastic pollution.