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Climate Change

02nd May 2022

Engineers develop an enzyme that can break down plastic in hours not centuries

Kieran Galpin


A huge scientific breakthrough

While plastic usually takes hundreds of years to decompose, Scientists have developed an enzyme that could shorten that time to mere hours.

Engineers at the University of Texas in Austin have been working on solutions to the polyethylene terephthalate problem, which currently accounts for 12 per cent of the Earth’s global waste. The polymer is found in bottles, packaging and textiles.

Now, they may have found the solution.

Dubbing their discovery FAST-PETase (functional, active, stable, and tolerant PETase), the team believes that the enzyme may be used in landfill sites. The enzyme is able to operate efficiently in ambient temperatures, meaning the applications are widespread.

Via UnSplash

“The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process,” said Hal Alper, professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin. “Beyond the obvious waste management industry, this also provides corporations from every sector the opportunity to take a lead in recycling their products.”

“Through these more sustainable enzyme approaches, we can begin to envision a true circular plastics economy,” he added in the Nature Journal.

Via UnSplash

The enzyme was developed from a natural PETase that allows bacteria to degrade the plastic of 51 different post-consumer plastic containers. Scientists were able to modify the PETase by using machine learning to pinpoint five mutations that would enable it to degrade the plastic faster under different environmental conditions.

In a process known as depolymerization, the enzyme works by breaking down the plastic into smaller parts and then reforming them through depolymerization to produce new plastic products.

In some trials, the enzyme broke down the plastic into its organic molecules known as monomers in under 24 hours.

Recycling just got a makeover.

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