New ‘Promiscuous’ Enzyme Helps Turn Plant Waste into Sustainable Products
(University of Portsmouth) A new family of enzymes has been discovered which paves the way to convert plant waste into sustainable and high-value products such as nylon, plastics, chemicals, and fuels.
The discovery was led by members of the same UK-US enzyme engineering team which, in April, improved a plastic-digesting enzyme, a potential breakthrough for the recycling of plastic waste.
The study published in Nature Communicationswas led by Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth, Dr Gregg Beckham at the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Professor Jen Dubois at Montana State University, and Professor Ken Houk at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The new family of enzymes are active on the building blocks of lignin – one of the main components of plants, which scientists have been trying for decades to find a way of breaking down efficiently.
Lignin acts as scaffolding in plants and is central to water-delivery. It provides strength and also defence against pathogens.
The research team found a way of releasing a key bottleneck in the process of breaking down lignin to its basic chemicals. The results provide a route to making new materials and chemicals such as nylon, bioplastics, and even carbon fibre, from what has previously been a waste product.
The discovery also offers additional environmental benefits – creating products from lignin reduces our reliance on oil to make everyday products and offers an attractive alternative to burning it, helping to reduce CO2emissions.
The research team was made up of experts in biophysics, structural biology, synthetic biology quantum chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular dynamics at the University of Portsmouth and NREL, and at the US universities of Montana State, Georgia, and California and Brazil’s University of Campinas.
The research comes on the heels of another study just published in the journal PNAS, led by Professor Ellen Neidle at the University of Georgia together with members of this team, which found a way of speeding up the evolution of this enzyme. The group are now working together to discover and evolve even faster enzymes for turning lignin into high-value sustainable products.
The research was jointly funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council(BBSRC), National Science Foundation (NSF), and the DOE EERE Bioenergy Technologies Office. The 3D structures of the enzymes were solved at Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron science facility in Oxford. READ MORE Abstract (Nature Communications)
Enzyme breakthrough paves way for new plant waste products (Biofuels International)