Plastic pollution is a significant, growing problem facing the environment.
Two researchers from the University of Tennessee are developing novel microbial enzymes to help answer the question: Is there a way to create more environmentally friendly plastics?
Todd Reynolds is a professor in UT Knoxville’s Department of Microbiology. Jordan Cannon is a doctoral student in microbiology who joined Reynolds’ lab as a graduate research assistant. Cannon and Reynolds are genetically modifying enzymes – BpAprE and BsAprE – to break down larger pieces of plastics into something soluble, like lactic acid, that microorganisms can consume. Ultimately, this enzyme technology will make plastics degrade faster in industrial compost conditions and, eventually, real-world conditions.
There could be a situation where the plastic gets knocked into the yard or blown into the river. Under the right conditions, it could degrade on its own,” said Reynolds. “If it turns back into lactic acid, that’s an environmentally existing compound that will not contaminate the environment. Microbes can eat it without problems.”
Reynolds’ background is primarily in yeast genetics and fungal pathogens research. A few years ago, Reynolds began collaborating on plastics degradation work with Jennifer DeBruyn, a professor in the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science at the UT Institute of Agriculture. Her lab helped them find bacteria that could degrade certain plastics.
In Reynolds’ lab, Cannon discovered and modified enzymes to degrade polylactic acid (PLA) plastics. While other research groups have engineered enzymes using artificial intelligence (AI), Reynolds joked that his lab relies on “JI” or “Jordan intelligence.”
Jordan has cleverly engineered our enzymes by looking at proteins and comparing them to each other using structural information,” said Reynolds. “He has taken an enzyme and used his ingenuity and skills to make it much more effective.”
Right now, they are focused on biodegradable PLA. Eventually, they could apply the fundamental principles of their technology to polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics, commonly used in plastic bottles and one of the more prominent sources of pollution.
While we’re making enzymes better at degrading plastics, we’re also discovering how they are degrading plastics,” said Cannon. “PLA is considered biodegradable but only in ideal conditions like industrial composting. So companies are interested in integrating enzymes into their plastic so that if they enter other environments, we can ensure the plastic will degrade instead of becoming an environmental pollutant.”
Cannon and Reynolds have filed three invention disclosures with the UT Research Foundation. They hold three provisional patents and one upcoming International PCT application.
One of the best parts of the work we do at UTRF is enabling researchers like Cannon and Reynolds to continue to innovate and make their technology better in the lab, but with an eye fixed toward the future potential of their technology,” said UTRF Vice President Kusum Rathore. “The plastic waste crisis is growing, and we need forward-thinking technology and processes like these to solve it.”
Looking ahead, Cannon hopes to begin a postdoc position where he can further develop the technology with support from UTRF. In the next few years, he hopes to use his knowledge and experience to venture out of academia and into the biotechnology industry.
We have a lot of ideas and have gotten a lot of feedback,” said Cannon. “We’ve already made some progress, but there’s plenty of work left to do. And UTRF has been great in helping us with marketing, meeting with companies and applying for patents.”
Reynolds has enjoyed working with Cannon and thinking about his work from a different angle. Rather than strictly viewing their work from a scientific lens, he now thinks about what might be useful from industrial and practical perspectives.
I enjoy working with bright scientists like Jordan and others in my lab who come up with neat ideas of their own,” said Reynolds. “There’s a particular joy in watching them make big discoveries and get excited about them – and I get to tag along for the ride. And, of course, help them secure funding to keep things going.”