New Enzyme Engineered Through Artificial Intelligence Could be Solution to Plastic Pollution

The globe is grappling with a massive plastic pollution catastrophe. The University of Texas at Austin has discovered an enzyme that consumes plastic, which could be a crucial breakthrough in combating the issue.

According to research, the amount of plastic produced worldwide has doubled in the previous 20 years, much of it being burned, dumped in landfills, or released into the environment, particularly the oceans.

Only 9% of plastic is successfully recycled, while 22% of plastic is mishandled, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Global Plastics Outlook report.

Teams of scientists and researchers are constantly dedicating time and resources to coming up with novel solutions to the expanding issue of plastic pollution in the world because plastic is not naturally biodegradable.

A machine learning (ML) method was developed by researchers at the University of Texas (UT) in Austin to produce a new type of enzyme that can break down plastic.

According to estimates from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), around 7 billion tons of plastic manufactured between 1950 and 2017 were disposed of as plastic garbage in landfills or discarded. Plastic trash has the potential to harm the environment seriously and its natural processes, fuel climate change, have an adverse effect on the livelihoods of millions of people, and reduce the world’s capacity to produce food. If chlorinated plastic is not disposed of or degraded properly, it can spread dangerous chemicals and affect ecosystems, groundwater, and the surrounding soil.

Human health and wellbeing might be affected by rising plastic pollution levels. It is thought by researchers that children are more likely than adults to be exposed to microplastics and their smaller equivalents, known as nanoplastics. Microplastics can also have negative health affects on children, such as inflammation and DNA damage. Adults who have persistent inflammation may require medical attention to get the care they need.

Plastic has negative effects on the ecosystem and the weaker animal populations that live in affected areas. To address the underlying causes of pollution, it is imperative to implement new technologies and provide substitute packaging because of the increasing quantity of plastic that is contaminating natural areas and waterways worldwide.

Hal Alper is the head of the engineering biology group at the University of Texas at Austin’s McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering. In addition, he holds the position of fellow and professor at UT’s Les and Sherri Stuewer Professorship in Chemical Engineering.

Alper and his group of scientists and engineers used machine learning (ML) to develop a hydrolase enzyme variation. One of the most widely used polymers in use today, PET (polyethylene terephthalate), may be broken down into its constituent components by the enzyme.

The PET polymer is most frequently seen in consumer packaged goods such as throwaway food trays and containers for drink, salad dressing, and fruit. A review published in the National Library of Medicine states that in 2021, PET packaging was responsible for 44.7% of single-serve beverage packaging in the US and 12% of solid trash worldwide.

However, PET plastic trash may be recycled to make brand-new PET materials when it decomposes, effectively establishing a circular plastics economy. Previous attempts at enzymatic degradation failed primarily because they were not strong enough against changes in pH, temperature, and reaction rates.

Alper and the UT Austin team discovered throughout the investigation that the unique plastic-eating enzyme, known as FAST-PETase (functional, active, stable, and tolerant PETase), can degrade polymers far more quickly than other PET hydrolases employed in earlier research. It can also break down products made of transparent and mixed-color PET plastic.

The novel FAST-PETase enzyme destroyed untreated, post-consumer PET from 51 different items almost entirely in just one week. The scientists also revealed that parts of a commercial water bottle and a complete thermally prepared water bottle may be broken down at 50C.

This new enzyme has practically endless potential to help many sectors reduce their trash because it can break down plastics so swiftly and extensively.

One of the biggest obstacles to many environmental cleanup projects is managing the outside temperature. Enzymatic breakdown is ineffective because the plastic-eating enzyme is temperature sensitive.

The FAST-PETase enzyme works well outside of laboratories because it can concurrently break down plastic and adapt to temperature changes. The groups who work to clean up the environment, such as environmental organizations, may benefit from this new revelation.

When present in sufficient amounts, the enzyme can cleanse waste facilities, landfills, and other locations adversely affected by plastic pollution. The plastic-eating enzyme is widely applicable, portable, and reasonably priced. In this research, machine learning plays a vital role. It is likely that the new enzyme discovery would not have been achieved without the model created by researchers at UT.

The University of Texas team filed a patent to investigate the potential uses of this novel technology. The objective is to increase the FAST-PETase enzyme’s production to a larger scale for industrial and environmental applications. It will be fascinating to observe how this finding may be applied and whether it contributes to the solution to the plastic pollution problem.

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