Home Sciences They discover an enzyme that destroys plastic waste at high speed

They discover an enzyme that destroys plastic waste at high speed

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A revolutionary discovery could offer a solution to the, for now, insoluble problem of the proliferation of plastic on the planet. An enzyme created by engineers at the University of Texas (USA) can break down in a matter of hours or days plastics that normally take centuries to degrade.

This discovery, which has been published in the journal Naturecould help solve one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems: what to do with the billions of tons of plastic waste that accumulate in landfills and pollute our land and natural waters.

Enzyme has the potential to power large-scale recyclingwhich would allow large industries to reduce their environmental impact by recovering and reusing plastics at the molecular level.

Hal Alper, Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin said, “The possibilities to take advantage of this state-of-the-art recycling process are endless. Beyond the obvious waste management industry, this also offers companies in all sectors the opportunity to take the lead in recycling their products. Through these more sustainable enzymatic approaches, we can begin to envision a true circular economy for plastics.”The PET, object of the project

The project focuses on polyethylene terephthalate (PET), an important polymer found in most consumer packaging, including cookie containers, soft drink bottles, fruit and salad containers, and certain fibers and textiles. It constitutes 12% of all waste in the world.

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The enzyme was able to complete a “circular process” of breaking down the plastic into smaller parts (depolymerization) and then chemically bonding it back together (repolymerization). In some cases, these plastics can be completely broken down into monomers in as little as 24 hours.

Researchers from the Cockrell School of Engineering and the School of Natural Sciences used a machine learning model to generate new mutations of a natural enzyme called PETase that enables bacteria to degrade PET plastics. The model predicts which mutations of these enzymes would achieve the goal of rapidly depolymerizing post-consumer waste plastic at low temperatures.

Through this process, which included the study of 51 different post-consumer plastic containers, five different polyester fibers and fabrics, and water bottles, all of them made of PET, the researchers demonstrated the efficacy of the enzyme, which they call FAST-PETase (Functional, active, stable and tolerant PETase).

This work really demonstrates the usefulness of bringing different disciplines together, from synthetic biology to chemical engineering and artificial intelligence.

Better than recycling or other ways to dispose of plastic

“Recycling is the most obvious way to reduce plastic waste. But Globally less than 10% of all plastic is recycled. The most common method of disposing of plastic, aside from dumping it in a landfill, is to burn it, which is expensive, requires a lot of energy, and releases harmful gases into the air. Other alternative industrial processes include glycolysis, pyrolysis and/or methanolysis processes, which consume a lot of energy”, he stated. Andrew Ellington, a professor at the Center for Synthetic Biology.

Biological solutions require much less energy. Research on enzymes for plastics recycling has advanced over the last 15 years. Nevertheless, Until now, no one had been able to figure out how to make enzymes that could work effectively at low temperatures so that they would be portable and affordable on a large industrial scale. FAST-PETase can carry out the process at less than 50ºC.

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Hereinafter, the team plans to work on scaling up enzyme production to prepare for industrial and environmental application. The researchers have filed a patent application for the technology and are looking at several different uses.

The most obvious are cleaning up landfills and greening industries that produce a lot of waste. But another key potential use is environmental reclamation. The team is studying various ways to get the enzymes into the field and clean up contaminated sites.

For these environmental cleaning applications, an enzyme is needed that can function in the natural environment at room temperature. It is in this field where the new technology presents enormous advantages for the future.

Reference study: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-04599-z

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Environment section contact: crisisclimatica@prensaiberica.es

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