The team used artificial intelligence, chemical engineering, and synthetic biology to turn a natural enzyme called PETase into a plastic-eating machine.
Quick science lesson: PET, which is short for polyethylene terephthalate, the chemical name for polyester, is a clear, strong, and lightweight plastic that’s widely used in food packaging and plastic bottles. PETase got its name from its ability to degrade these PET plastics.
To deconstruct PET plastic even more quickly and at low temperatures, researchers adjusted PETase to create a new enzyme, called FAST-PETase, which gives bacteria the ability to recycle waste plastic efficiently.
Since plastics account for 8% of all solid waste globally and this new enzyme is laser-focused on breaking it down, this is a potentially crucial discovery.
Most plastic — about 90% — isn’t recycled and either ends up in landfills, where it can leach long-lasting chemicals into the ground, or is burned or broken down at huge energy costs and tons of pollution produced. This enzyme, however, takes much less energy to produce and works quickly.
Plastic that would last almost 500 years in a landfill can be broken down in a day by bacteria armed with FAST-PETase and turned into base units that can be reused.
Hal Alper, a professor of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin, told UT News that the possibilities of this discovery “are endless.”
“Beyond the obvious waste management industry, this also provides corporations from every sector the opportunity to take a lead in recycling their products,” he said. “We can begin to envision a true circular plastics economy.”
The “circular economy” refers to an economic approach that relies on developing new goods without waste or pollution, reusing products and materials to their fullest extent, and restoring natural systems.
Right now, humans have a so-called linear economy, also known as a “take/make/waste system,” in which we take raw materials, make a product, and then throw it away when the product becomes damaged or is no longer usable. By recycling plastic more efficiently, plastic waste can be diverted into more useful products, and the entire industry can become more sustainable.
The scientists at UT Austin are ramping up production for real-world uses. They see this product cleaning up landfills, high-waste industries, and polluted natural areas in the future.
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