Team Members: Ryan Kenneally, William Sharpless, Hannah Grossman, Jason Hou
School: UC Berkeley

Billions of pounds of polyethylene are produced each year, and unfortunately this compound can take thousands of years to break down. Polyethylene has also been linked to human cancers, groundwater toxification, and environmental damage. A reliable means of breaking down polyethylene is necessary and would have a huge impact. Unfortunately, microbial degradation of polyethylene is not common in nature. Polyethylene has been around for less than 100 years and enzyme evolution takes millennia, so microbes have not had enough time to develop this ability. However, recent techniques in Directed Evolution allow researchers to take evolution into the lab and speed it up to thousands of times its natural rate. This project proposes to apply Directed Evolution techniques to a specific enzyme tied to polyethylene degradation in order to create a novel enzyme capable of degrading polyethylene efficiently and reducing global plastic waste.