The appearance of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and similar accumulations of plastics and other debris in the world’s oceans starting in the 1940s, and first documented in the 1980s, is one of the pressing unsolved problems of our time and a severe negative repercussion of our industrial age. Floating trash in the oceans takes many forms, ranging from largely intact products such as plastic bottles to plastic fragments visible to the naked eye, or microscopic pieces and fibers of plastic and cellulose that are largely invisible or resemble marine snow and other aquatic organic debris.
Plastic waste contaminates almost all water sources on earth, is severely harmful to aquatic animals such as birds and fish, and helps spread toxins to many organisms including humans. It is antithetical to continued life and biodiversity on earth.
But solving this problem is difficult. We all use plastics and value their properties as synthetic materials for packaging and durable products of all types. Are humans willing to do without plastics? Very unlikely, and not a promising way to approach the plastic waste problem.
So how about collecting the plastic waste that washes into waterways and floats around in the oceans? Recent programs have begun to address the problem of plastic pollution by either collecting plastics that accumulate in the oceans’ garbage patches, or by preventing their spread from rivers into the sea. These are important initiatives that can make a difference over time, and definitely deserve to be continued and expanded.
However, many experts agree that the best way to solve the problem of plastic waste is to encourage plastic recycling by turning plastic waste from worthless trash into a valuable commodity that is coveted as a source of raw materials. This is not far-fetched. Current plastic recycling is inefficient because post-consumer plastics are less desirable than virgin plastics due to loss of strength, clarity or other properties. But if it were possible to break down or de-polymerize plastics back into the chemical precursors (also known as ‘monomers’) that are used to make virgin plastics, we would enable a true circular economy based on plastic recycling into high-quality new products. Monomers have high value, and plastics made from monomers, whether directly made from petroleum-derived chemicals or broken down from plastic waste, are identical and can be turned into the same items for human use.
This is where biotechnology and synthetic biology can help and promise new breakthroughs. Enzymes, the ubiquitous catalysts of the biological world, can be evolved to attack and transform any material. In fact, microbes isolated from landfills have begun to evolve new enzymes capable of breaking down plastics. Biotechnologists are taking these promising new proteins and, using biotechnology approaches capable of million-fold acceleration in enzyme improvement, are turning them into efficient plastic degraders.
Primordial Genetics is collaborating with scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to help solve the plastic problem. NREL made a splash in 2018 when they reported a major advance in the development of enzymes capable of breaking down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the strong and clear plastic polymer that is widely used in beverage bottles in all parts of the world. Primordial Genetics is now applying its own Function Generator™ technology, which allows exploration of a vast new sequence space for improving an enzyme, to improve these enzymes and make them vastly more efficient at PET degradation. This work is funded by the US Department of Energy, which has made the development of new technologies for plastic recycling a high priority for the 21st century. Give us a few years to apply our bag of synthetic biology tricks, and we will contribute to cleaner waterways, lower waste pollution in oceans, and a healthier planet.
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