Enzyme Engineering Turns Plant Waste into Plastics, Fuels

A new class of enzymes can turn a plant-based material into a range of products, such as nylon, plastics, chemicals or fuels.

Imagine if there was a plant-based material that could easily be transformed into synthetic materials, the fabrication and disposal of which currently create excess waste and pollution.

That’s the scenario with a new discovery by a cross-institutional team of scientists, who have been working with enzymes to help solve the world’s plastic-pollution problem.

In their latest work, they have identified a new family of enzymes that paves the way to convert plant waste into sustainable and high-value products such as nylon, plastics, chemicals, and fuels.

A team—co-led by Professors John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth, Jen Dubois at Montana State University, Ken Houk at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Dr. Gregg Beckham at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)—made a breakthrough in using so-called “promiscuous” enzymes to break down lignin to its basic molecules.

Lignin is one of the main components of plants, and for years researchers have been trying to find an efficient way to break the material down. This is because “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,” McGeehan said in a press statement.

Lignin, a building block of plants, is seen here stained red in a cross-section of plant cells from an oak tree. (Image Source: Berkshire Community College Bioscience Image Library)

Research Evolution

Building on previous research to improve a plastic-digesting enzyme to help dispose of plastic pollution, the team now has found a way to overcome a key challenge in the process of breaking down lignin to its basic chemicals, researchers said.

The research now paves the way to make new materials and chemicals such as nylon, bioplastics, and even carbon fiber, from what typically is a waste product, McGeehan said.

“It’s an amazing material,” he said in the statement. “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.”

Specifically, the enzyme researchers worked with is a new class of cytochrome P450 that is categorized as promiscuous—which means it’s able to work on a wide range of molecules. The enzyme class can be used to degrade a variety of lignin-based substrates, so researchers can engineer it to work especially for a specific molecule, allowing them to customize its function, researchers said.

The team published a paper on their work in the journal Nature Communications.

Due to lignin’s versatility, researchers foresee the development of numerous new, eco-friendly products if it can be broken down repurposed using their enzyme discovery, researchers said. Creating products from lignin could help reduce global reliance on fossil fuels to make everyday products as well as for fuel, providing myriad benefits to the environment, they said.

Researchers plan to continue their work not just with this family of enzymes but also to discover others that could possibly make the breakdown of lignin even faster, they said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

 

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