Devour a bottle in 10 minutes: the race to create enzymes to solve the plastics crisis hides a market of billions
And then, about 350 million years ago, lignin appeared and changed history. Plants that had grown brutally thanks to cellulose, but were being harassed by numerous bacteria, protozoa and fungi. The first woody structures ended that war: not only were they harder, stiffer and more versatile than mere cellulose, they were impregnable.
Mainly because they were based on phenol and, for practical purposes, that meant that the “only way” to extract their energy power was by burning them. There was no microorganism on the face of the Earth capable of degrading wood and, as a consequence, woody plants were conquering every inch of fertile land.
Without natural “predators”, wood was king. Carbon has never been fixed as it was at that time and that became a problem: CO2 levels in the atmosphere fell to limits never seen before. With that, global temperatures dropped, biodiversity was strangled, and the world went into hibernation that lasted 40 million years.
Those who took a little mushroom called Agaricomycetes in learning that instead of trying to digest the lignin, it was best to “bombard the wood with oxygen” using certain enzymes until all the cellulose was released. In the last decades we have had a new ‘lignin’, plastics, and like that one they have managed to invade almost every inch of virgin land without our being able to control it easily. Luckily, again, we can count on the enzymes.
An enzyme against plastic
As in the history of Agaricomycetes, in this there is a lot of chance. In 2016, a team of Japanese came across a plastic-eating insect. It was not very clear how or why; so they began to investigate. And in 2018, almost by chance, researchers at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado came up with the design of an enzyme based on these insects that was able to decompose a plastic bottle in a few days.
It is not the only team that is working on the issue. In April, a French company (Carbios) announced that they had found an enzyme in a compost bin capable of degrading 90% of a plastic bottle in 10 hours. Of course, at 70 degrees of temperature.
The North American team has now put the throttle on and created a super enzyme (two combined, actually) capable of breaking down plastic six times faster than in 2018. At room temperature. Cast it is essential to be able to ‘land’ these approaches commercially. And the race is crucial: Although the coronavirus has silenced it, the global recycling crisis is still there and with it a market of billions.
Image ! Nariman Mesharrafa