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Enzymes that degrade plastic in a few minutes

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The increasing volume of plastic waste is a key societal challenge. The pollution of oceans and coasts around the world has an enormous impact at both economic and social levels, with high risks to human health and wellbeing. It is in this context that Maria João Ramos, coordinator of the High Performance Computing in Molecular Modelling and Professor at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Porto, has been producing mutant enzymes to degrade plastic.

The project “Biodegrading Plastics” is supported by the Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe – PRACE, and includes Alexandre Magalhães and Pedro Fernandes, both Professors at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Porto and researchers at LAQV. Using high performance computers, the project aims to produce enzymes able to degrade plastic in just a few minutes.

It all starts with Ideonella Sakaiensis, a bacterium that produces two enzymes (PETase and MHEtase) that can degrade plastic. However, as explained by Maria João Ramos, “it would be too costly to develop an efficient process to produce these compounds using bacterial cultures”. Through computing, the group envisions to work on more effective enzymes, produced by easily scaled-up processes. For that purpose, Maria João Ramos was awarded 45 million hours of access to world-class computing, which will be used to assess the maximum efficacy of each mutant enzyme.

The main objective is to accelerate the biodegradation of plastics. Nevertheless, the usefulness of these enzymes is extended to other possibilities. “After this biodegradation, only the reagents or materials that are used in PET will remain. It will always be necessary to determine the degree of purity, but the possibility of reusing these reagents remains open”, explains Maria João Ramos.

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