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An enzyme that could degrade plastic waste

Words by Smiley Team

We've all seen devastating images of the consequences to pollution in the ocean: coral bleaching, turtles with straws in their nose, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for starters. The prevalence of plastic specifically has become a hot topic, with microplastics recently being discovered in human blood.  

But The Alper Lab out of the University of Texas at Austin might have an answer.

Around six years ago, scientists discovered a bacterium that could degrade polyethylene terephthalate while digging through the debris at a plastic recycling plant. Polyethylene terephthalate, or polyester – otherwise known as PET – is one of the most common chemicals in food packagings like wrappers and bottles. 

The organism has two enzymes, both of which break down the PET when they’re all mixed in water. Both enzymes have use but one in particular – PETase – has more potential. Potential that the Alper Lab is trying to make use of. 

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PETase has been the target of a protein treatment meant to strengthen its resistance to heat, and improve its chemical reaction efficiency. Artificial intelligence has been key in creating the proteins needed for the project. 

The AI created a protein scaffolding of sorts and helped the researchers make changes within the protein as they needed. 

“For each of PETase’s 290 amino acids, the program checked whether it fits well within its immediate structural environment compared with other proteins," Alper told Chemistry World. "An amino acid that isn’t a good fit may be a source of instability, and the algorithm suggests a different amino acid in its place."

The hope is to create a resource that can help clear up plastic waste and pollution. One of the primary issues with the current enzyme is temperature control, as the temperature that it currently thrives at, 50 degrees celsius is too low for widespread use. 

Inspired to act?

SUPPORT: Check out Ocean Cleanup, which focuses on cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other waste in the oceans. 

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

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