The invention of a “plastic-eating enzyme” by University of Texas researchers is described in the peer-reviewed journal Nature on April 27. They mutated the natural enzyme PETase into one that could swiftly break down plastics derived from the polymer polyethylene terephthalate, generally known as PET, using machine learning technology.

Researchers noted in a university press release that the enzyme employs a “circular process” to break down the plastic into smaller components and then chemically turns it into a smaller, reusable plastic. The procedure can take as little as 24 hours and is far more ecologically friendly than dumping the plastics in a landfill or burning them.

In a press release, one of the study’s co-authors, Hal Alper, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Texas, remarked, “The opportunities are unlimited across sectors to utilize this cutting-edge recycling method.”

“Aside from the apparent waste management industry, this also allows businesses from all sectors to take the lead in recycling their products,” says the report “he said “We may start to imagine a genuine circular plastics industry using these more sustainable enzyme techniques.”

The enzyme won’t break down every type of plastic, but it can break down PET, which accounts for around 12% of all worldwide garbage, according to the researchers.

PET is used in the following plastic products:

  • Containers for cookies
  • Bottles of soda and water
  • Packaging for fruit salads
  • Fabrics and fibers made of polyester

plastic-eating enzyme

The researchers are presently developing commercial applications for the plastic-eating enzyme, which can degrade polymers at temperatures below 122 degrees Fahrenheit. They believe there is also the possibility of cleaning up dumps and contaminated regions.

“When considering environmental cleanup applications, you need an enzyme that can work in the environment at ambient temperature,” Alper added. “This is an area where our technology will have a significant edge in the future.”

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ExxonMobil supported the research as part of a long-term research arrangement with the institution.

ExxonMobil was subpoenaed by California Attorney General Rob Bonta last week as part of an inquiry into the petroleum industry’s “history and current efforts to mislead the public” while producing a worldwide plastic pollution disaster, according to Bonta.