19 December 2022 – When he was eight years old, Cesar Antonio Ramirez Sarmiento watched his mother plant plants in the garden in plastic bags. “She told me the insects would eat the plastic. I didn’t believe that was possible!” the new EMBO Global Investigator says. Years later he became aware of the growing scientific interest in plastic degrading enzymes and decided to use his knowledge of structural biology to learn more about them.
Using a combination of computer simulations and molecular assays, he and his group at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago now study the evolution and design of proteins that degrade plastics such as PET: “It was thought that PET degrading enzymes only worked at high temperatures. But they have also been found in cold regions and can degrade PET at room temperature.” Ramirez Sarmiento is now looking for industrial partners to find a purpose for enzymes that degrade plastic at low temperatures. His group is also intrigued by so-called metamorphic proteins, which exhibit dramatic but reversible changes in their three-dimensional structure enabling them to switch biological function. The group wants to understand how these traits are encoded and how they have evolved. Being a member of the EMBO Global Investigator Network means a lot to Ramirez Sarmiento. “I am very thankful that EMBO supports scientists from outside Europe,” he says. “This is a fantastic opportunity to network with many different groups from all over Europe and beyond. It will allow me, and my students, to widen our horizons and mindsets.”