Students engineered plastic-eating bacteria

Two students have founded a new startup company at Silicon Valley whose main mode of income is by letting bioengineered bacteria turn plastic into water.

Jeanny Yao, 21, and 22, Miranda Wang’s, journey with recycling began back in their teenage years in high school when they were part of their school’s recycling club in Vancouver, Canada. Throughout those years, the duo collected bottles on beaches and attended tours at waste-processing plants.

However, they soon learned that the recycling system that’s in place is not the most efficient, counter-productive and that most plastics they sorted would just end up in landfills due to the lack of market for it.

“Growing up as a kid, you believe that if you do your part and you put your things into the right bins … everything is going to get taken care of,” Yao told an outlet.

Years later, Yao took biochemistry and environmental sciences study at the University of Toronto, while Wang took engineering entrepreneurship and biology from the University of Pennsylvania.

Together, they started developing these plastic-eating bacteria and established the startup called BioCellection at the age of 21 in 2015 in Menlo Park.

In their website, BioCellection states:

“BioCellection’s conversion technology involves the chemical breakdown of plastic polymers, such as polystyrene and post-consumer film, into organic compounds, followed by biological conversion into valuable products. BioCellection upcycles unrecyclable plastic waste into valuable compound rhamnolipid for textiles using genetically engineered bacteria.”

The two even had the opportunity to broadcast their ingenious invention when they took the stage on a recent Ted Talk conference where the duo emphasized that high pollution in the oceans is a big problem on the planet and finding solutions to work through the problem is essential.

According to recent research, it is estimated that there are over 150 million tonnes of plastic in the world’s oceans, and every year, one million birds and over 100,000 sea mammals die from eating and getting tangled in plastic waste. A recent report estimates that plastics in the sea is set to triple by 2025 it is likely that in the year 2050 we will find more plastic than fish in the waters of the seas, and for this reason, there are many people working to generate solutions to this problem, some very imaginative to reverse this situation.

However, Wang noted that finding a way for people to stop using plastic will take longer than finding solutions to treating and recycling plastic waste that’s accumulating exponentially.

“It is practically impossible to make people stop using plastic, we need technology to break the material, and everything becomes biodegradable,” says Wang.

According to the two scientists, they have been developing a type of bacteria for years where it can not only eat plastic, but it can turn it back to water.

While the idea seems revolutionary, it does not mean that we can just dump the bacteria onto existing plastics, much more directly out in the ocean.

It happens in a two-step process that tackles plastic pollution one plastic at a time. By coupling chemistry and synthetic biology, BioCellection creates a novel process that breaks down plastic into usable building blocks that are then turned into other valuable materials.

The plastics must first need to go through a process of being dissolved and once the plastic becomes highly malleable, it is then placed into a biodigester station where the bacteria will slowly digest the processed plastics. 

The ‘genetically engineered bacteria’ will then chemically breakdown these plastic polymers and turn it into organic compounds, which then undergo a ‘biological conversion’ where the by-products can be used for other purposes such as textile.

Currently, th duo has already filed patents and have obtained financing of $400,000 to start developing the product.

They have also won 5 prizes thanks to this project, becoming popular as the youngest to win the Perlman science prize.

Notably, BioCellection is part of the growing market that addresses plastic pollution.

Just this July, an Irish teenager has been named the overall winner of the 2019 Google Science Fair because of the method he developed that effectively removed microplastics from water.

Another,  Biofabrik Technologies — a Berlin-based waste management company — says that they can turn plastic waste into usable fuel.

But as Wang said: “Our technology is the first in the world that can break down plastics at a scalable industrial level.”

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