Structural Insight into the Molecular Mechanism of PET Degradation

31 January 2018

A KAIST metabolic engineering research team has newly suggested a molecular mechanism showing superior degradability of poly ethylene terephthalate (PET).

This is the first report to simultaneously determine the 3D crystal structure of Ideonella sakaiensis PETase and develop the new variant with enhanced PET degradation.

Recently, diverse research projects are working to address the non-degradability of materials. A poly ethylene terephthalate (PET)-degrading bacterium called Ideonella sakaiensis was recently identified for the possible degradation and recycling of PET by Japanese team in Science journal (Yoshida et al., 2016). However, the detailed molecular mechanism of PET degradation has not been yet identified.

The team under Distinguished Professor Sang Yup Lee of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the team under Professor Kyung-Jin Kim of the Department of Biotechnology at Kyungpook National University conducted this research. The findings were published in Nature Communications on January 26.

This research predicts a special molecular mechanism based on the docking simulation between PETase and a PET alternative mimic substrate. Furthermore, they succeeded in constructing the variant for IsPETase with enhanced PET-degrading activity using structural-based protein engineering.

It is expected that the new approaches taken in this research can be background for further study of other enzymes capable of degrading not only PET but other plastics as well.

PET is very important source in our daily lives. However, PET after use causes tremendous contamination issues to our environment due to its non-biodegradability, which has been a major advantage of PET. Conventionally, PET is disposed of in landfills, using incineration, and sometimes recycling using chemical methods, which induces additional environmental pollution. Therefore, a new development for highly-efficient PET degrading enzymes is essential to degrade PET using bio-based eco-friendly methods.  

Recently, a new bacterial species, Ideonella sakaiensis, which can use PET as a carbon source, was isolated. The PETase of I. sakaiensis (IsPETase) can degrade PET with relatively higher success than other PET-degrading enzymes. However, the detailed enzyme mechanism has not been elucidated, hindering further studies.

The research teams investigated how the substrate binds to the enzyme and which differences in enzyme structure result in significantly higher PET degrading activity compared with other cutinases and esterases, which make IsPETase highly attractive for industrial applications toward PET waste recycling.

Based on the 3D structure and related biochemical studies, they successfully predicted the reasons for extraordinary PET degrading activity of IsPETase and suggested other enzymes that can degrade PET with a newly-classified phylogenetic tree. The team proposed that 4 MHET moieties are the most properly matched substrates due to a cleft on structure even with the 10-20-mers for PET. This is meaningful in that it is the first docking simulation between PETase and PET, not its monomer.

Furthermore, they succeeded in developing a new variant with much higher PET-degrading activity using a crystal structure of this variant to show that the changed structure is better to accommodate PET substrates than wild type PETase, which will lead to developing further superior enzymes and constructing platforms for microbial plastic recycling.

Professor Lee said, “Environmental pollution from plastics remains one of the greatest challenges worldwide with the increasing consumption of plastics. We successfully constructed a new superior PET-degrading variant with the determination of a crystal structure of PETase and its degrading molecular mechanism. This novel technology will help further studies to engineer more superior enzymes with high efficiency in degrading. This will be the subject of our team’s ongoing research projects to address the global environmental pollution problem for next generation.”

This work was supported by the Technology Development Program to Solve Climate Changes on Systems Metabolic Engineering for Biorefineries (NRF-2012M1A2A2026556 and NRF-2012M1A2A2026557) from the Ministry of Science and ICT through the National Research Foundation of Korea. Further Contact: Dr. Sang Yup Lee, Distinguished Professor, KAIST, Daejeon, Korea (, +82-42-350-3930)