Method That Turns Plastic Into Proteins Wins $1.2 Million Prize

The prize-winning method could, one day, put plastic-turned-protein on your plate. Image Credit:  JOAT/Shutterstock.com

Plastic pollution is an evident problem across the world. Many methods have tried to tackle it over the years. How do we get rid of plastic material that can’t be recycled and that won’t disappear for thousands of years? An unusual answer comes from researchers in the US. They have a method that could turn plastic into food.

Now, it’s not like they have a sci-fi machine that turns a plastic bottle into a delicious pizza, but they have got microbial communities that can break down plastic and other hard-to-breakdown plant material and turn these products into edible proteins.

The approach won Professor Steve Techtmann, from Michigan Technological University, and Professor Ting Lu, from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the €1 million (about $1.2 million) 2021 Future Insight Prize from science and technology company Merck KGaA, which is based in Darmstadt, Germany.

“We use engineered natural organisms to break down the plastics and non-edible plant biomass to convert into food,” Techtmann said in a statement. “It is such an honor to be awarded this prize. This prize will allow us to pursue high-risk and high-reward lines of research that will enable us to move this work forward more quickly.”

The research focuses on turning plastic into protein powder and lubricants, but it originally attempted to do this by using chemical methods and high heat. This original work was supported by a $7.2 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Techtmann's work with microbial communities led him to focus instead on microbes. Recently, another group of researchers found that bacteria in cows' stomachs are up to the task. Techtmann's work focuses on microbial communities in bilge water, the dirty water that collects inside the hull of a ship.

The team demonstrated that once the plastic is broken down by heat and a reactor, it can be fed to the bacteria. The microbes flourish on this meal. They keep growing as long as they have plastic to eat, producing more bacterial cells. Given that these cells are about 55 percent protein, once the plastic has been broken down, they can be dried down as a protein powder for later use.

The team hopes to find a way to make the process completely biological so that the plastic doesn’t need to go through heat and special chemical reactions to be broken down. It is possible that enzymes exist to help break down the plastic

“Nature has provided us with biological systems for coping with many environmental issues,” Techtmann said. “My role in this project is to identify and grow bacterial communities from the environment that have the ability to use wastes like plastic, as well as discover novel enzymes to break down plastics and other wastes more efficiently.”


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