SOLVE magazine Issue 01 2020 - Page 12

SUSTAINABILITY AND THE ENVIRONMENT: BIOTECHNOLOGY PHOTO: UPIX PHOTOGRAPHY Professor John McGeehan Not surprisingly the University’s enzyme research – now housed within the newly established Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) – has attracted worldwide attention and acclaim among scientists, governments and also the plastics industry itself. The team was recently awarded the Times Higher Education STEM Research Project of the Year. Our new ‘biotech’ ally Another family of enzymes has been found that can be engineered to break down plant waste and help convert it into high-value materials such as nylon, plastics and other polymers. This has the potential, if scaled up, to achieve two sustainability goals: to give waste, particularly crop waste, a commercial value while also replacing petroleum-based feed stocks for such products with low-carbon renewables. The latest development was announced in mid-2019 by a UK–US enzyme engineering team at the University of Portsmouth and the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The team’s newly engineered enzyme is active on a key component of lignin. Currently, this valuable material is primarily burned, and scientists have been trying for decades to find a way to break it down efficiently. Professor John McGeehan, Director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation at the University, says the finding arises from the researchers’ pursuit of enzymes in nature that can be brought into the laboratory, studied to see how they work, then engineered to produce new tools for the biotechnology industry. “In this case, we have taken a naturally occurring enzyme and engineered it to perform a key reaction in the breakdown “It allows us to see the 3D atomic structure of PETase in incredible detail,” says Professor McGeehan. “Being able to see the inner workings of this biological catalyst provided us with the blueprints to engineer a faster and more efficient enzyme.” Chief Executive of the Diamond Light Source, Professor Andrew Harrison, says the beamline is proving invaluable for tailoring the enzyme for large-scale industrial recycling processes: “The impact of such an innovative solution on plastic waste will be global. It is fantastic that UK scientists and facilities are helping to lead the way.” In recognition of the achievement to date, and to help drive the researcher further, the UK Government has recently allocated £5.8 million from the Research England Expanding Excellence Fund. This will further extend the capabilities of the CEI. The government support, coupled with significant investment by the University of Portsmouth, will speed up progress towards finding biological solutions to one of the world’s greatest environmental challenges – plastic waste. Universities and Science Minister Chris Skidmore said: “Pushing the boundaries of knowledge and conquering new innovations are what our universities are known for the world over. This programme led by the University of Portsmouth will look at how enzymes can break down single-use plastics and help cut plastics pollution.” of one of the toughest natural plant polymers – lignin. “To protect their sugar-containing cellulose, plants have evolved this fascinatingly complicated material that only a small selection of fungi and bacteria can tackle. However, lignin represents a vast potential source of sustainable chemicals, so if we can find a way to extract and use those building blocks, we can create great things.” Lignin acts as scaffolding in plants and is central to water delivery from roots. It provides strength and also a defence against pathogens. “It’s an amazing material,” says Professor McGeehan. “Cellulose and lignin are among the most abundant biopolymers on earth. The success of plants is largely due to the clever mixture of these polymers to create lignocellulose, a material that is challenging to digest.” Current enzymes tend to work on only one of the building blocks of lignin, making the breakdown process inefficient. Using advanced 3D structural and biochemical techniques, the team has been able to alter the shape of the enzyme to accommodate multiple building blocks. 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 the world’s reliance on Professor McGeehan, who is also the Centre’s Director, says the facility and its researchers are now focusing on finding enzymes capable of breaking down different types of plastic and then engineering these to be fast enough to be deployed at industrial recycling facilities. The Centre has three teams: one focused on finding new enzymes in the environment that can break down different types of plastics; another to engineer these enzymes and systems to make them more efficient and robust; and a third to work with industry partners to make these engineered enzymes suitable for large-scale production. “From David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II through to his latest programme, Climate Change – The Facts, we are all now increasingly aware of the urgency of tackling plastic pollution and climate change,” he says. “It is of the utmost importance that the UK Government has recognised the need to fund research and innovation to take our fundamental science through to real-world industrial and environmental applications.” The University of Portsmouth’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Graham Galbraith, says the importance of the science that will help the world address “one of the most pernicious pollutants of our age” can’t be understated. “One of the overarching goals of our research strategy at the Centre is to focus researchers’ minds, time and effort in addressing the most pressing problems facing the world.” 12 ISSUE 1 / 2020