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"Breaking Good" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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The discovery of a family of enzymes with an affinity for lignin -- components of plants that make them rigid and less susceptible to pathogens -- could represent a breakthrough in the recycling of plant waste and production of sustainable chemicals needed for nylon, fuels and plastics. Scientists have been trying for decades to more efficiently break down lignin into its basic chemical building blocks, and a U.S.-U.K. engineering team believes these enzymes could be engineered to be super effective at doing so.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Break down to make up.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Led by the same US/UK collabo (Sound effect: pac man sounds) that recently improved a plastic-eating enzyme: a leap in the process to turn useless plant waste (Sound effect: glop!) into useful things (Sound effect: shiny "ding!"). The international team has overcome a major bottleneck to breaking down lignin -- a main component of plants, that helps make them rigid and defends against pathogens. Scientists have been trying for decades to find an efficient way to break it down to its basic chemical building blocks.

This group of researchers is on a mission to find and engineer naturally-occurring enzymes -- biological catalysts that can break down some really tough stuff. Now, the team has discovered a new family of enzymes that have a liking for lignin, and act on its building blocks. And they plan to engineer the enzymes to work even better.

The scientists say lignin is a vast potential source for sustainable chemicals, and if we can find a way to extract and use those building blocks, we can create nylon, chemicals, fuels, plastics -- all made from plant waste -- without petroleum.

It's like I've always said, "one person's dead hydrangea is another's chip clip."

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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