Scientists create enzyme capable of breaking down plastic material in one week

Plastic is one of the most widely used materials in the manufacture of products. However, its main disadvantage is that it has an extremely slow decomposition process, which is harmful to the environment when improperly disposed of. Plastic can take between 100 and 1000 years to degrade completely, depending on the components with which it has been integrated.

Now it is likely that this process can be significantly accelerated thanks to the work of a team of scientists, who resorted to machine learning to achieve this goal.

Through an article published in the journal Nature, it was learned that a research group at the University of Texas modified an enzyme to acquire the ability to destroy the individual components of PET (polyethylene terephthalate), a type of plastic that makes up 12% of the world’s waste.

Such was the level of effectiveness of this enzyme that it reduced the degradation time of this plastic to one week; all this within a process known as depolymerization in which the decomposed monomers can then be transformed into PET plastic.

Thanks to the action of this enzyme, the recycling of large quantities of plastic waste looks promising, although it is necessary to develop a strategy to expand the scope of this technological advance and take advantage of its potential at the industrial level.

Regarding the capabilities of this process, Vince Hal Alper, professor of chemical engineering and author of the article, said: “It has advantages over traditional recycling […]:

“It has advantages over traditional recycling […] If you melted down the plastic and then remolded it, you would start to lose the integrity of the plastic with every turn you took at recycling.”

Halper also said that enzymes capable of breaking down plastic have been known to exist since 2005, although their action is only effective in certain situations.

In the case of this enzyme, Alper says that it can function under different temperatures and pH levels. The researchers plan to test the enzyme on different PET-type plastics and from there find a way to mass-market its implementation on an industrial scale.


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