An enzyme variant created by engineers and scientists at The University of Texas at Austin can break down environment-throttling plastics that typically take centuries to degrade in just a matter of hours to days. This discovery could help solve one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems: what to do with the billions of tons of plastic waste piling up in landfills and polluting our natural lands and water. The enzyme has the potential to supercharge recycling on a large scale that would allow major industries to reduce their environmental impact by recovering and reusing plastics at the molecular level.
“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.”
The project focuses on polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a significant polymer found in most consumer packaging, including cookie containers, soda bottles, fruit and salad packaging, and certain fibers and textiles. It makes up 12% of all global waste. The enzyme was able to complete a “circular process” of breaking down the plastic into smaller parts (depolymerization) and then chemically putting it back together (repolymerization). In some cases, these plastics can be fully broken down to monomers in as little as 24 hours.
Researchers at the Cockrell School of Engineering and College of Natural Sciences used a machine learning model to generate novel mutations to a natural enzyme called PETase that allows bacteria to degrade PET plastics. The model predicts which mutations in these enzymes would accomplish the goal of quickly depolymerizing post-consumer waste plastic at low temperatures.