AI-engineered enzyme eats entire plastic containers


A plastic-degrading enzyme enhanced by amino acid changes designed by a machine-learning algorithm can depolymerise polyethylene terephthalate (PET) at least twice as fast and at lower temperatures than the next best engineered enzyme. Six years ago scientists sifting through debris of a plastic bottle recycling plant discovered a bacterium that can degrade PET. The organism has two enzymes that hydrolyse the polymer first into mono-(2-hydroxyethyl) terephthalate and then into ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid to use as an energy source. One enzyme in particular, PETase, has become the target of protein engineering efforts to make it stable at higher temperatures and boost its catalytic activity. A team around Hal Alper from the University of Texas at Austin in the US has created a PETase that can degrade 51 different PET products, including whole plastic containers and bottles.