Plastics bottles - Centre for Enzyme Innovation

The Centre for Enzyme Innovation

Explore how our pioneering research is helping to solve one of the planet's most-pressing environmental problems

At the Centre for Enzyme Innovation, we're researching solutions to some of the most pressing global environmental problems.

Learning from the natural world, we are working to deliver transformative enzyme-enabled solutions for the circular recycling of plastics.

Following a £5.8 million award from the Research England Expanding Excellence Fund in 2019, and a £1m award from the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership in 2020 through the HM Government Getting Building Fund, we're creating new state-of-the-art facilities and recruiting specialist researchers from across the world to join our team.


Our research

We currently have 30 scientists covering a wide range of disciplines including microbiology, molecular biophysics, biochemistry, enzyme engineering and synthetic biology, biotechnology, and more recently, polymer chemistry.

Hosted in our new custom laboratories, we have the expertise and facilities required to help tackle the challenge of plastic pollution and develop enzyme-based low energy, low carbon, biorecycling solutions. 

Our research sits at the interface between enzymes and polymers with a focus on both pure and applied research in biocatalysis.

We are expanding our research and innovation activities to address the diverse range of plastics, including mixed waste streams and composites, materials that are often incinerated or end up in landfill and leak to the environment.

Centre Director

Professor Andy Pickford

Operations Director

Professor Andy Pickford

WATCH | Could bacteria help beat the world’s plastic problem?

Learn about our research at the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) – and how it can make recycling easier

Our research is divided into 4 areas

  • Discover new enzymes from the environment that break down plastics
  • Engineer these enzymes to enhance their activity, stability and yield
  • Deploy enzymes by pilot scale fermentation and industry-ready formulations
  • Apply these enzymes in proof-of-concept biorecycling and upcycling processes

How we work

The CEI’s unique integrated research and innovation pipeline

The pipeline allows for the streamlined development of enzymes from discovery through to recycling applications.

Working towards a circular plastics economy

Enzymes break down waste plastic polymers into building blocks that are purified and re-polymerised, allowing infinite recycling of the materials as part of a circular plastics economy.

Recent research outputs

Biochemical and structural characterization of an aromatic ring-hydroxylating dioxygenase for terephthalic acid catabolism

Kincannon, W. M., Zahn, M., Clare, R., Romberg, A., Larson, J., Lusty-Beech, J., Bothner, B., Beckham, G. T., McGeehan, J. E. & DuBois, J. L. (2022), Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 119, 13, 9 p., e2121426119.

Bioconversion strategies aimed at plastics have emerged as important components of enabling a circular economy for synthetic plastics, especially those that exhibit chemically similar linkages to those found in nature, such as polyesters. The enzyme system described in this work is essential for the efficient uptake of the enzymatic breakdown components of poly(ethylene terephthalate) into bacteria. Our description of its structure and substrate preferences lays the groundwork for in vivo or ex vivo engineering of this system for PET upcycling.

Comparative performance of PETase as a function of reaction conditions, substrate properties, and product accumulation

Erickson, E., Shakespeare, T. J., Bratti, F., Buss, B., Graham, R., Hawkins, M., Koenig, G., Michener, W. E., Miscall, J., Ramirez, K., Rorrer, N. A., Zahn, M., Pickford, A., McGeehan, J. E. & Beckham, G. T. 2022, ChemSusChem 15, 1, 11 p., e202101932.

The past decade has seen incredible progress in the identification, characterization, and engineering of PET hydrolases, including the PETase from Ideonella sakaiensis featured in this study. Now, strategies for implementation and scale-up of enzymatic recycling technologies are on the horizon. As this study points out, in addition to enzyme engineering, reaction optimization and process design tuned to the characteristics of the waste stream may prove critical in realizing an efficient enzymatic recycling process.

Chemical and biological catalysis for plastics deconstruction, recycling, and upcycling

Ellis, L.D., Rorrer, N.A., Sullivan, K.P., Otto, M., McGeehan, J.E., Román-Leshkov, Y., Wierckx, N., Beckham, G.T. 2021, Nature Catalysis 4, 539–556.

In this review we focus on the challenges and opportunities in chemical and biological catalysis for plastics deconstruction, recycling, and upcycling. We stress the need for rigorous characterization and use of widely available substrates, such that catalyst performance can be compared across studies. We draw parallels between catalysis on biomass and plastics, as both substrates are low-value, solid, recalcitrant polymers. Innovations in catalyst design and reaction engineering are needed to overcome kinetic and thermodynamic limitations of plastics deconstruction. Either chemical and biological catalysts will need to act interfacially, where catalysts function at a solid surface, or polymers will need to be solubilized or processed to smaller intermediates to facilitate improved catalyst–substrate interaction. Overall, developing catalyst-driven technologies for plastics deconstruction and upcycling is critical to incentivize improved plastics reclamation and reduce the severe global burden of plastic waste.

Techno-economic, life cycle, and socio-economic impact analysis of enzymatic recycling of poly(ethylene terephthalate)

Singh, A., Rorrer, N.A., Nicholson, S.R., Erickson, E., DesVeaux, J., Avelino, A.F.T., Lamers, P., Bhatt, A., Zhang, Y., Avery, G., Wu, C., Tao, L., Pickford, A.R., Carpenter, A.C., McGeehan, J.E. Beckham, G.T., 2021, Joule 5, 1–25.

Scientists in the UK and US, as part of the BOTTLE Consortium, modelled a conceptual recycling facility where waste PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic is broken down with enzymes, returning the material back into its original chemical building blocks. This process was compared with traditional fossil fuel routes, where plastic building blocks are currently extracted mainly from oil and gas. The study reveals that PET produced using enzyme-based recycling can be cost competitive with traditional fossil fuel-derived PET, cut energy use by up to 80 per cent, and reduce climate impacting greenhouse gas emissions by up to 40 per cent relative to virgin manufacturing.

A comprehensive techno-economic analysis and life cycle assessment revealed strong economic, social, and environmental benefits of using enzymes which opens up exciting opportunities for industry to make a step-change in how these plastics are recycled.

Critical enzymatic reactions in aromatic catabolism for microbial lignin conversion

Erickson, E., Bleem, A., Kuatsjah, E., Werner, A.Z., DuBois, J.L., Eltis, L.D., McGeehan, J.E. and Beckham, G.T., 2021, Nature Catalysis 5, 86–98.

There are many parallels between the fields of natural and synthetic plastic polymer break down strategies. Here we look at the key enzymes that can tackle the deconstruction of the common biopolymer lignin, detailing the specific reactions that are necessary for the biological funnelling of aromatic compounds. We review the known enzymatic mechanisms for these reactions that are relevant for aerobic aromatic catabolism of lignin-related monomers, highlighting opportunities at the intersection of biochemistry, enzyme engineering and metabolic engineering for applications in the expanding field of microbial lignin valorisation.

Characterization and engineering of a two-enzyme system for plastics depolymerization

Knott, B.C., Erickson, E., Allen, M.D., Gado, J.E., Graham, R., Kearns, F.L., Pardo, I., Topuzlu, E., Anderson, J.J., Austin, H.P., Dominick, G., Johnson, C.W., Rorrer, N.A., Szostkiewicz, C.J., Copié, V., Payne, C.M., Woodcock, H.L., Donohoe, B.S., Beckham, G.T. & McGeehan, J.E., 2020, Characterization and engineering of a two-enzyme system for plastics depolymerization. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 117 (41), 25476–25485.

Deconstruction of recalcitrant polymers, such as cellulose or chitin, is accomplished in nature by synergistic enzyme cocktails that evolved over millions of years. In these systems, soluble dimeric or oligomeric intermediates are typically released via interfacial biocatalysis, and additional enzymes often process the soluble intermediates into monomers for microbial uptake. The discovery of a two-enzyme system for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) deconstruction, which employs one enzyme to convert the polymer into soluble intermediates and another enzyme to produce the constituent PET monomers (MHETase), suggests that nature may be evolving similar deconstruction strategies for synthetic plastics. This study on the characterization of the MHETase enzyme and synergy of the two-enzyme PET depolymerization system may inform enzyme cocktail-based strategies for plastics upcycling.

Funding

Researchers from the Centre for Enzyme Innovation receive funding from a wide range of external sources, including the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the National Environment Research Council (NERC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the European Commission, Innovate UK, Diamond Light Source, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), the U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and Johnson Matthey.

Our most recent large funding awards were awarded from the Research England E3 scheme (£5.8m) and the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (£1m).

Contact us

Discover how you can collaborate with the CEI.

If you're a commercial or academic organisation interested in working with us, please contact our Innovation Fellow, Rory Miles.

Centre email and telephone

cei@port.ac.uk | +44(0)23 9284 2023