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New enzyme has potential to supercharge plastic recycling

Experts at UT Austin have 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 supercharge recycling on a large scale that would allow major industries to reduce their environmental impact by reusing plastics at the molecular level.

“The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process,” said Professor Hal Alper. “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.”

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a polymer found in most consumer packaging, such as soda bottles, that makes up 12 percent of all global waste.

A team of experts in the Cockrell School of Engineering and College of Natural Sciences 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. 

The researchers demonstrated the effectiveness of FAST-PETase to help break down dozens of post-consumer plastic containers, five different polyester fibers and fabrics, and water bottles that were all made from 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 scale up enzyme production to prepare for industrial and environmental application, such as cleaning up landfills and polluted sites. 

“When considering environmental cleanup applications, you need an enzyme that can work in the environment at ambient temperature,” said Alper. “This requirement is where our tech has a huge advantage in the future.”

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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