A new study led by the Institut de Ciències del Mar (ICM-CSIC) and the University of Leipzig (Germany) has revealed a new methodology to observe the molecular details of the enzymes that degrade single-use plastic.

The results of the work, published in the journal ‘ACS Catalysis’, have biotechnological applications and «could contribute to improve the recycling of plastics and reduce the effects of pollution«, explained the Institut de Ciències del Mar in a statement on Wednesday.

Its about PET (polyethylene terephthalate), whose «rigidity, transparency, and hardness make it simpler in one of the most valuable plastics«for the manufacture of bottles, all kinds of containers and other single-use products.

To discover the mechanism of PET degradation, the researchers designed a glass matrix that stabilized the intermediaries of the enzymatic reaction and allowed its detection in real time through spectroscopic methods such as magnetic resonances.

Then, through molecular calculations using supercomputersthey can interpret the spectroscopic data and generate a detailed 3D molecular model from the enzymatic process of PET degradation.


The results show that the interaction of two PET subunits «is enough for the enzyme to cut the polymer«, when until now it was thought that it was necessary for a large part of the PET to bind to the enzyme to break down the plastic polymer into its original components.

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Furthermore, the study reveals that the enzyme can «walk» or slide on the PET chain to go from one monomer –molecule of small molecular mass– to another.

«Understanding how PET interacts with the enzyme is important to guide the design of new recycling systems. In the end, nature itself provides us with the starting material to reduce plastic pollution, although we must use them properly», he concludes.