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This newly invented protein can 'eat' plastic in just a few days: 'The possibilities are endless'

Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin have engineered FAST-PETase, an enzyme that can quickly break down the polluting plastic polyester.

This newly invented protein can 'eat' plastic in just a few days: 'The possibilities are endless'
Image Source: Makiko Tanigawa / Getty Images

Scientists in Texas have created a protein that can "eat" plastic. Dubbed the "Pac-Man" protein, it has the potential to eliminate billions of tons of landfill waste. The enzyme works by destroying PET (polyethylene terephthalate, commonly known as polyester), a type of plastic that is ubiquitous in food and drink packaging, textiles and even carpet fibers. The enzyme was developed by a team of scientists at the University of Texas at Austin led by chemical engineering professor Hal Alper. Alper expressed immense optimism about its possible benefits, Good News Network reports.


"The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process," Professor Alper stated. "Through these more sustainable enzyme approaches, we can begin to envision a true circular plastics economy." At present, PET comprises about 12% of all global waste. Like other forms of plastic, PET is made up of long string-like molecules. The enzyme developed by the team of researchers reduces them into smaller parts, essentially transforming them into chemicals that can then be reassembled. According to the team, the plastic can be broken down completely in as little as 24 hours in some cases. This offers hope for those trying to solve global pollution as such an enzyme could supercharge recycling on a large scale.


Furthermore, major industries would be able to recover and reuse products at the molecular level. To create the enzyme, Professor Alper and his colleagues analyzed dozens of discarded plastic items including containers, water bottles, and polyester fibers and fabrics. These were all made from PET. Results from the team's experiments showed the effectiveness of the enzyme, which has since been named FAST-PETase (functional, active, stable and tolerant PETase). The team published a paper describing the enzyme and its potential just last week. The paper was published in the journal Nature.


Co-author Andrew Ellington, a professor in the school’s Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology whose team led the development of the machine learning model, said, "This work really demonstrates the power of bringing together different disciplines, from synthetic biology to chemical engineering to artificial intelligence." While there are alternative methods of breaking down plastic, they are typically more energy-intensive. In comparison, biological solutions such as FAST-PETase require much less energy. The team has already filed a patent and production is being scaled up to prepare for the enzyme's industrial applications.


"When considering environmental clean-up applications, you need an enzyme that can work in the environment at ambient temperature," Professor Alper said. "This requirement is where our tech has a huge advantage in the future." The enzyme is expected to help with obvious uses, such as cleaning up landfills and greening high waste-producing industries. Nonetheless, there is an additional use: environmental remediation. At present, the team of researchers is looking at a number of ways to use their newly invented enzymes in the field to clean up polluted sites. Once their study has been completed, FAST-PETase may be the way forward to rejuvenate environmental habitats across the world.


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