CCES Unicamp

Plastic-degrading enzyme puts CCES on the spotlight worldwide

Researches on PETase have called the attention of mass media, such as BBC, CNN and TV Globo

Picture the impact caused by the discovery of an enzyme capable of wiping all the waste of plastic built up from our consumption off the environment. Now think of the repercussion it would have, if scientists improved the efficiency of such enzyme in degrading the PET (Polyethylene Teraftalato) in plastic bags, bottles, packaging, toys and even in the device you are reading this article on.

A research as such, which tries to make an item almost ubiquitous in peoples’ lives not a problem anymore – and once again be made just a good solution -,had everything to be popular not only among scientists, but to society as a whole. But the researchers in the Center for Computing in Engineering & Sciences (CCES), at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), who worked in collaboration with colleagues in the University of Portsmouth (UK), and in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL – USA), did not expect as much visibility.

The research team was focused on analyzing and modifying the structure of the PETase enzyme – which decomposes PET- in order to understand how it works and explore the protein’s potential. The first surprise was noticing that the mutant PETase has proved to be more efficient than the original. The second surprise came when the findings, originally published in the PNAS journal, had immediate media repercussion, being reported by mass media giants, such as BBC, CNN and TV Globo.

To explain this media phenomenon in scientific divulgation, we interviewed physicist and chemist Munir Skaf, Dean of Research for Unicamp, headmaster of CCES and co-author to the research on PETase, in collaboration with Dr. Rodrigo Leadro Silveira, also from Unicamp and head of the computing researches on this project. Take a look at the discussion below:

Did the people envolved in the PETase research expect it to become so popular outside the academic circles?

Munir Skaf: Honestly, I have to say we expected very little. This only happened because our colleagues in University of Portsmouth (UK) have a systematic routine for scientific divulgation, focused on mass media. Every relevant research is worked on as news to the general public.

It works like this: When the University – Portsmouth, in this case – knows the research is going to be published, their communication department prepares a text to call the attention of the press, produces pictures and videos in the labs with the researchers, and has all the material ready to be shared with journalists immediately after the end of the confidentiality suspension specified by the journal. The suspension ends the day the paper is published. So, the same day the paper is released the news also goes live. This increases the impact of the divulgation.

Was it possible to track down how the news spread?

MN: In the case of the research with PETase, it all started in the United Kingdom, with the divulgation I mentioned before, by our colleagues in Portsmouth. When PETase became a subject of interest for BBC and The Guardian, it won the world.

TV Globo (Brazil) actually came to know about it, and about CCES’ involvement in the research, through their journalism staff in London. So, they reached out to us and reported it in Jornal Nacional. After that we haven’t stopped receiving invites by other stations and publications to disseminate our research.

This goes to learning that we can better develop scientific divulgation, and more systematically, in our country, so that the Brazilian press informs on the researches evolving national professionals and institutions by our initiative, and not because they first heard of it in international media. Scientific divulgation for the general public is an important task that cannot be ignored.

Focusing on the PETase research, now: which are the challenges it imposes and possibilities it offers to the future?

MN: There are three main challenges to overcome in engineering this protein. The first one is making it more thermostable, or more efficient. If it becomes capable of working in higher temperatures, its effectiveness in degrading polymer materials will increase.

The second is finding ways to enable PETase’s production in large scale, cheapening the process and enabling the last challenge: developing the technology to be used in plastic-degrading plants so that PETase leaves the labs to kick in and improve the lives of the people who are so interested in its potential.

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