Novel plastic degrading enzymes, plastizymes

Plastic pollution is a significant environmental problem affecting the world. Macroscopic and microscopic plastic pollution is found pretty much everywhere in the world and affecting human health and nature. Plastics are man-made materials which, while being organic, are not naturally degraded in the nature and therefore accumulating in the environment. They are also difficult to recycle without losing their natural properties and better, more efficient ways to recover the raw materials are needed while achieving carbon neutrality.

We are part of BBSRC sLoLa project for discovery novel plastic degrading enzyme, or plastizymes, lead by Florian Hollfelder in our department, with Christine Orengo from University College London and Rob Finn from European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) as collaborators.

We will use advanced informative tools to identify potential plastic degrading enzymes from databases, produce them for functional analysis, characterise the active ones structurally to understand the features that enable plastic degradation. Using high-throughput droplet-based screening methods developed in the Hollfelder group, we will evolve the enzyme for higher activity towards plastic substrates, especially those with high crystallinity which are the hardest to degrade.

All this data will enable us to use machine-learning tools to develop better algorithms to successfully identify new active enzymes from ever-growing databases of metagenomic sequences, methods which in the future can be used for other enzyme classes.