A ‘Pac-Man’ protein that gobbles up plastic and breaks it down could open the door to eliminating billions of tons of landfill waste.
The enzyme destroys PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is ubiquitous in food and drink packaging, textiles, and polyester carpet fibers.
It offers hope for solving global pollution by supercharging recycling on a large scale. Major industries would be able to recover and reuse products at the molecular level.
“The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process,” said Professor Hal Alper, of The University of Texas at Austin. “Through these more sustainable enzyme approaches, we can begin to envision a true circular plastics economy.”
PET makes up 12 percent of all global waste. Like all plastics, it’s made up of long string-like molecules.
The enzyme reduces them into smaller parts—chemicals which can then be reassembled.
In some cases, the plastics can be fully broken down in as little as 24 hours.
Artificial intelligence, machine learning, generated novel mutations to a natural enzyme called PETase that allows bacteria to degrade PET.
The computer identified those that would be most effective at less than 122 degrees-F (50-C), making it both portable and affordable.
Prof. Alper and his colleagues analyzed dozens of discarded plastic items including containers, water bottles and polyester fibers and fabrics—all made from PET.
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