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Texas A&M researchers receive $2 million grant to develop more efficient plastic waste strategy

Published: Sep. 29, 2021 at 10:49 PM CDT
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - Researchers at Texas A&M have been given a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a more efficient strategy to deal with plastic waste.

The team will use a collection of bacteria and fungi to degrade certain types of plastics. These microorganisms already occur in nature, but they degrade plastics naturally at an extremely slow rate. The goal of the research is to find the optimal combination of these plastic-degrading microbes to make the process more efficient.

Arum Han is a professor in the Texas A&M Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the project’s principal investigator. He says there are billions of microorganisms, and that we know less than 1% of who they are and what they do.

”Our goal is can we take naturally-occurring bacteria and fungi, natural microorganisms, and better understand them and engineer them to be able to make the degradation speed much, much faster,” Han said. “A key goal of our project is can we actually create a stable community of bacteria and fungi that can work together and degrade plastic.”

Han says if they can figure it out, this is also a very practical solution to a huge environmental problem.

“Both bacteria cells and fungi grow extremely fast,” Han said. “If we really can come up with a method, it becomes a renewable way of degrading plastic. It is what we call a scalable technology because cells can grow so fast.”

Han says this is one of the greenest methods to deal with plastic waste because it harnesses the power of nature.

“It’s not using chemicals or some energy intensive process to degrade,” Han said. “Fungi is actually the biggest recycler in nature in general. It plays an important role in our natural ecology and cycle.”

They hope to be able to recycle the degraded plastic waste to make new products.

“We’re also using synthetic biology to utilize this degraded waste and upconvert it into a high-value product,” Han said. “That will be a way of sort of achieving a cycling economy where nothing gets wasted.”

Han’s team will focus on two specific types of plastic for their research, but they hope their work will lead them to a microorganism community that can also degrade a wider variety of plastic materials.

“We are focusing on polystyrene and polyethylene,” Han said. “These are very commonly utilized household waste that we see all the time. These are also some of the largest quantity of the waste that we are seeing. They’re in the top five.”

There’s also a teaching and training aspect to the grant that will give both undergraduate students at the university and local high school students outreach, research, and educational opportunities.

“We’re planning a series of opportunities where these students can get some hands-on experience in a lab,” Han said. “What is a plastic-degrading microorganism? What is environmental microbiology? What is synthetic biology? They can grasp these concepts early on so they’re interested in this fascinating, next-generation biotechnology area.”

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