A review of cross-disciplinary approaches for the identification of novel industrially relevant plastic-degrading enzymes

Josephine Herbert, Angela H. Beckett, Samuel C. Robson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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The large-scale global use of plastics has led to one of the greatest environmental issues of the 21st century. The incredible durability of these polymers, whilst beneficial for a wide range of purposes, makes them hard to break down. True recycling of plastics is difficult and expensive, leading to accumulation in the environment as waste. Recently, a new field of research has developed, aiming to use natural biological processes to solve this man-made problem. Incredibly, some microorganisms are able to produce enzymes with the capacity to chemically break down plastic polymers into their monomeric building blocks. At an industrial scale, this process could allow for a circular recycling economy, whereby plastics are broken down, then built back up into novel consumer plastics. As well as providing a solution for the removal of plastics from the environment, this would also eliminate the need for the creation of virgin plastics. Analytical techniques, such as those allowing quantification of depolymerisation activity and enzyme characterization, have underpinned this field and created a strong foundation for this nascent inter-disciplinary field. Recent advances in cutting-edge ‘omics approaches such as DNA and RNA sequencing, combined with machine learning strategies, provide in-depth analysis of genomic systems involved in degradation. In particular, this can provide understanding of the specific protein sequence of the enzymes involved in the process, as well as insights into the functional and mechanistic role of the enzymes within these microorganisms, allowing for potential high-throughput discovery and subsequent exploitation of novel depolymerases. Together, these cross-disciplinary analytical techniques offer a complete pipeline for the identification, validation, and upscaling of potential enzymatic solutions for industrial deployment. In this review, we provide a summary of the research within the field to date, the analytical techniques most commonly applied for enzyme discovery and industrial upscaling, and provide recommendations for a standardised approach to allow research conducted in this field to be benchmarked to ensure focus is on the discovery and characterisation of industrially relevant enzymes.
Original languageEnglish
Article number15898
Number of pages25
Issue number23
Publication statusPublished - 29 Nov 2022


  • analytical chemistry
  • bacterial genomics
  • bacterial transcriptomics
  • circular recycling
  • enzymatic plastic depolymerisation
  • inter-disciplinary research
  • next generation sequencing
  • third generation sequencing


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