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This AI-designed enzyme devours plastic waste in days

Scientists have developed an entirely new enzyme capable of completely breaking down plastic in a matter of days. This has renewed hope that we can begin to effectively manage the world’s leading waste crisis.

In all likelihood, most of your throwaway plastic will outlive you by some 350 years before it decomposes. Depressing thought, right?

Now consider that one million single-use plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are sold in just a year. Delicate ocean ecosystems continue to be desecrated by the stuff, and only now are we beginning to understand the extent of health concerns surrounding microplastics.

Despite the efforts of even the most ardent recyclers among us, a frankly pathetic 10% of the world’s plastic trash is reused.

Activists aren’t exaggerating when we refer to plastic pollution as a crisis, but alas crises have been solved before. Descending into nihilism is not an option, and besides, we’ve cause for rare glimmer of optimism on the subject, thanks to a major scientific breakthrough this week.

Scientists at the University of Texas, Austin, have successfully engineered a new enzyme that can physically break down PET plastic – which makes up 12% of all global waste – in a matter of days, according to a peer-reviewed Nature journal.

A team of researchers developed the enzyme they’re calling FAST-PETase using natural plastic hungry bacteria, before running a machine learning application to find the most effective mutations at degrading polymers within various environmental conditions, and quickly.

Experiments were conducted on 51 unique plastic containers, five polyester fibres, and a bag of plastic bottles ranging from different colour and strength grades.

To the delight of the researchers, their concoction returned a flawless success rate with all test material breaking down within a matter of days and at temperatures lower than 50 degrees Celsius.

This variety of depolymerisation, which refers to breaking down plastics often to a state where it can be remoulded, is both exciting and new. The enzyme breaks plastic material into its most basic monomer building blocks.

From here, it can be be used to reform new products without compromising on structural integrity at all, unlike previous chemical clean-ups. It’s better to re-use plastic than make more of it from scratch, right?

You’re probably wondering why it has taken us to arrive at the verge of literal catastrophe before developing an effective solution like FAST-PETase, but the simple truth is that previous iterations of ‘plastic eating’ enzymes just haven’t worked out.

Two key obstacles that had thwarted prior efforts were an enzyme’s vulnerability to temperature and PH limits, as well as sluggish reaction rates. In this extraordinary case, however, researchers are confident their ‘robust’ enzyme will thrive in non-laboratory conditions, such as landfills, waste plants, or areas that have become hotspots for litter.

‘When considering environmental clean-up applications, you need an enzyme that can work in the environment at ambient temperature,’ Alper said. ‘This requirement is where our tech has a huge advantage in the future.’

On yet another positive note, the journal states that bolstering the enzyme’s production to an industrial scale isn’t expected to be too arduous a task. Now that the chemical formula is established, it is cheap to make and can be transported globally.

The FDA approval process is expected to take place next, and barring any unforeseen hitches, could lead to us restoring damaged ecosystems and slowly gaining a stranglehold on PET plastic waste within the next few years.

A positive plastic waste development, you say… well I never.