New enzyme has potential to boost plastic recycling •

Experts at UT Austin created an enzyme variant that has the potential to eliminate billions of tons of landfill waste. In just 24 hours, the enzyme can break down plastics that typically take centuries to degrade.

According to the researchers, the enzyme could boost recycling on a large scale, allowing large industries to reduce their environmental impact by reusing plastics at the molecular level.

“The possibilities are endless across all sectors to take advantage of this state-of-the-art recycling process,” said Professor Hal Alper. “Beyond the obvious waste management industry, it also offers companies in all sectors the opportunity to take the lead in recycling their products. With these more sustainable enzymatic approaches, we can begin to envision a true circular plastics economy.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a polymer found in most consumer packaging, such as soda bottles, which accounts for 12% of all global waste.

A team of experts from the Cockrell School of Engineering and the College of Natural Sciences have used machine learning to develop a new variant of the natural enzyme PETase. The enzyme variant, called FAST-PETase, allows bacteria to degrade PET plastics.

Researchers demonstrated the effectiveness of FAST-PETase in helping to break down dozens of post-consumer plastic containers, five different polyester fibers and fabrics, and water bottles that were all PET.

“This work really demonstrates the power of bringing together different disciplines, from synthetic biology to chemical engineering to artificial intelligence,” said Professor Andrew Ellington.

Going forward, the team plans to increase enzyme production to prepare for industrial and environmental applications, such as cleaning up landfills and polluted sites.

“When considering environmental cleaning applications, you need an enzyme that can perform in the room temperature environment,” Alper said. “This requirement is where our technology has a huge advantage going forward.”

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Chrissy Sexon, Personal editor

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