New Enzyme to Turn Plant Waste into High-Value Products

New family of enzymes discovered that are able to convert plant waste into high-value products such as plastics, nylon, fuels, and chemicals. This discovery was led by the same UK-US enzyme engineering team which improved the plastic-digesting enzyme.

The study was led by Prof. John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth, Professor Jen Dubois at Montana State University, Dr. Gregg Beckham at the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and Professor Ken Houk at the University of California. It was published in Nature Communications.

The new family of enzymes is active on the main components of plants – lignin – which scientist was struggling to find a way to break down. Prof. McGeehan said that they have created an international team for the discovery and construction of naturally occurring enzymes. These enzymes are biological catalysts which are able to perform long reactions and break down some of toughest natural and man-made polymer.

The lignin in plants helps to maintain sugar-containing cellulose by tackling the selected fungi and bacteria. However, lignin represents the vast source of sustainable chemicals. By extracting these building blocks, great things can be created.

Lignin provides strength to plants and protection from pathogens. It’s an amazing material and present in robust amount. Success of extraction depends on plant as these polymers can create lignocellulose which is challenging to digest. The team found a way to solve the problem by breaking this lignin to its basic compositions. This way man-made nylon, bioplastic, and carbon fibre can be produced from a waste of the plant.