Researchers accidentally engineer plastic-eating enzyme

A boy stands near a whale-shaped art installation that is made of plastic and trash made by environmental activist group Greenpeace Philippines, lying along the shore in Naic, Cavite in the Philippines, in this May 12, 2017 file photo. (REUTERS)
Updated 17 April 2018
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Researchers accidentally engineer plastic-eating enzyme

  • Despite recycling efforts, most plastic can persist for hundreds of years in the environment
  • Researchers say they are now working on further improvements to the enzyme

TAMPA: Researchers in the US and Britain have accidentally engineered an enzyme which eats plastic and may eventually help solve the growing problem of plastic pollution, a study said Monday.
More than eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year, and concern is mounting over this petroleum-derived product’s toxic legacy on human health and the environment.
Despite recycling efforts, most plastic can persist for hundreds of years in the environment, so researchers are searching for better ways to eliminate it.
Scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the US Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory decided to focus on a naturally occurring bacterium discovered in Japan a few years ago.
Japanese researchers believe the bacterium evolved fairly recently in a waste recycling center, since plastics were not invented until the 1940s.
Known as Ideonella sakaiensis, it appears to feed exclusively on a type of plastic known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used widely in plastic bottles.

The researchers’ goal was to understand how one of its enzymes — called PETase — worked, by figuring out its structure.
“But they ended up going a step further and accidentally engineered an enzyme which was even better at breaking down PET plastics,” said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed US journal.
Using a super-powerful X-ray, 10 billion times brighter than the Sun, they were able to make an ultra-high-resolution three-dimensional model of the enzyme.
Scientists from the University of South Florida and the University of Campinas in Brazil did computer modeling which showed PETase looked similar to another enzyme, cutinase, found in fungus and bacteria.
One area of the PETase was a bit different, though, and researchers hypothesized that this was the part that allowed it to degrade man-made plastic.
So they mutated the PETase active site to make it more like cutinase, and unexpectedly found that this mutant enzyme was even better than the natural PETase at breaking down PET.
Researchers say they are now working on further improvements to the enzyme, with the hope of eventually scaling it up for industrial use in breaking down plastics.
“Serendipity often plays a significant role in fundamental scientific research, and our discovery here is no exception,” said study author John McGeehan, professor in the School of Biological Sciences at Portsmouth.
“Although the improvement is modest, this unanticipated discovery suggests that there is room to further improve these enzymes, moving us closer to a recycling solution for the ever-growing mountain of discarded plastics.”
 


Cyber crime website behind 4 million attacks taken down

Updated 53 min 23 sec ago
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Cyber crime website behind 4 million attacks taken down

LONDON: A British and Dutch-led operation on Wednesday brought down a website linked to more than four million cyber-attacks around the world, with banking giants among the victims, Britain’s National Crime Agency said.
“Authorities in five countries including the Netherlands, Serbia, Croatia and Canada, with support from Police Scotland and Europol, targeted six members of the crime group behind webstresser.org,” the NCA said in a statement.
Cyber-criminals used the website’s services, which could be rented for as little as $14.99, to launch so-called distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks, which swamp targets with traffic and disable their IT systems.
British police searched an address in Bradford, northern England, and seized a number of items, while Dutch police, with assistance from Germany and the United States, seized servers and took down the website.
Police believe an individual linked to the address used the site, the world’s largest illegal DDOS seller, to hit seven of Britain’s biggest banks in November, forcing them to reduce operations.
“Stressers” services give users the ability to stress-test the resilience of servers, causing disruption to the target.
“A significant criminal website has been shut down and the sophisticated crime group behind it stopped as a result of an international investigation,” said the NCA’s Jo Goodall.
“The arrests made over the past two days show that the Internet does not provide bullet-proof anonymity to offenders and we expect to identify further suspects linked to the site in the coming weeks and months as we examine the evidence we have gathered,” she added.
Dutch National Police’s Gert Ras was quoted in the NCA statement as saying that the operation had “made an unprecedented impact on DDOS cyber-crime.”
“This is a warning to all wannabe DDOS-ers... we will identify you, bring you to court and facilitate that you will be held liable by the victims for the huge damage you cause.”