Scientists have engineered an enzyme that has the capacity to help break down terephthalate (TPA), one of the chemical building blocks of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, which is used to make single-use drinks bottles, clothing, building products and flooring such as carpets.

The research, which was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was co-led by Professor Jen DuBois, Montana State University, and Professor John McGeehan from the University of Portsmouth, who in 2018 led the international team that engineered a natural enzyme that could break down PET plastic.

This enzyme, called TPADO, breaks down TPA and pretty much only TPA, with amazing efficiency into the chemical building blocks ethylene glycol (EG) and TPA. 

With more than 400 million tons of plastic waste produced globally each year, the overwhelming majority of which ends up in landfills, it is hoped this work will open the door to improve our environment.  

This will help tackle the challenge of plastic pollution and develop biological systems that can convert waste plastic into valuable products and can then be utilised by bacteria to generate sustainable chemicals and materials, essential in making valuable products out of plastic waste., such as playgrounds equipmnet and sports flooring.

Image: The TPADO enzyme. Credit: Rita Clare, Montana State University