Update: Yale students may have plastics breakthrough

Vince Bond Jr.

Published: August 25, 2011 6:00 am ET

Related to this story

Topics Materials, Suppliers, Sustainability

NEW HAVEN, CONN. (Aug. 25, 1:15 p.m. ET) — During a two-week class trip to the Amazon Rainforest in 2008, Yale student Pria Anand felt she was heading into uncharted territory.

She didn’t realize how right she was.

Anand, who collected dozens of fungal samples in Ecuador with classmates in her Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory course, wanted to find endophytes that could break down plastics in a process called bioremediation. Endophytes are microbes that can live symbiotically in plants for at least part of their lives without harming them.

After a myriad of tests at the university’s lab in New Haven, Conn., Anand found that Pestalotiopsis microspora could degrade polyurethane, a potentially groundbreaking discovery for the waste management industry.

Polyurethane is a widely-used plastic in many products, including insulation, sealants, electronics and appliances.

“Hopefully, it will be a useful tool in managing waste,” said Anand, now a medical student at Stanford University. She graduated from Yale in 2010.

The plastic, which was in a milky-white liquid form before being introduced to the fungus, had vanished when she checked on the mixture in a Petri dish two weeks later.

Anand, 23, said it was an amazing feeling. And hiking through a rainforest didn’t hurt either.

“It was really exciting. You could see that these microbes were able to break down plastic,” Anand said. “The white substance turned clear. It seemed like a long shot, so it was exciting to see that it worked.”

The fungus isn’t the only one to degrade polyurethane, but it’s special because it can do so under anaerobic conditions, or without oxygen, said Yale biochemistry Professor Scott Strobel, who oversaw the project.

Anand initially screened 60 organisms and found activity among Pestalotiopsis. She then gathered all of the related organisms and screened them further, Strobel said.

Anand’s efforts laid the groundwork for Jonathan Russell, a 2011 Yale graduate, to build on the research.

Russell, who begins work on his doctorate in molecular biology at Harvard this fall, examined the endophyte’s digestive functions and found that it could grow on polyurethane as its only carbon source.

Russell also discovered that it can grow anaerobically.

“I went after the enzymes,” said Russell, 22. “I am very excited by the chemistry that underlies biological phenomenon so I was naturally very curious about what factor was responsible for the degradation of the polyurethane.”

The Amazon basin’s plant diversity brings the class back each year in search of microbes that “have taken up residence within plants,” Strobel said.

In short, more plant diversity equals more opportunities to find helpful microbes.

The Applied and Environmental Microbiology journal will publish the findings in September.

In the future, Strobel said he hopes to characterize the protein the fungus produces that is responsible for bioremediation.

In the meantime, students are looking into ways to degrade polystyrene.

“We are also developing approaches to identify organisms able to degrade more complicated polymers. One of the students this year is targeting polystyrene,” Strobel said. “Because of the nature of the polymer, that is a much more difficult challenge than polyurethane.”


Comments

Update: Yale students may have plastics breakthrough

Vince Bond Jr.

Published: August 25, 2011 6:00 am ET

Post Your Comments


Back to story


More stories

Image

Trexel charges patent infringement against Taiwan company

October 20, 2014 3:25 pm ET

Trexel Inc., the supplier of the MuCell microcellular foaming technology, is accusing a Taiwanese company, Chuan Lih Fa Machinery Works, of violating ...    More

Materials firm realigns business divisions

October 20, 2014 1:23 pm ET

Trinseo S.A., formerly known as Styron L.L.C., is realigning its business divisions, creating two new business groups — Performance Materials...    More

Image

Humanoid robot provides inspection service with a smile

October 17, 2014 6:00 am ET

Everyone knows robots can improve production and quality. But no one says they can't show a little personality while they're working.    More

Image

Hasco gets into augmented reality

October 17, 2014 6:00 am ET

Mold makers may be used to seeing cores and pins on the exhibition stand of a supplier — but not augmented reality that looks like it comes...    More

Image

Corbion Purac collaboration taking bioplastics into even more uses

October 17, 2014 6:00 am ET

Corbion Purac NV's collaboration with Taiwan-headquartered compounder Supla Co. Ltd. and Taiwan electronics producer Kuender & Co. is paying dividends...    More

Market Reports

Plastics Recycling Trends in North America

This report is a review and analysis of the North American Plastics Recycling Industry, including key trends and statistics based on 2013 performance. We examine market environment factors, regulatory issues, industry challenges, key drivers and emerging trends in post-consumer and post-industrial recycling.

Learn more

Plastics in Mexico - State of the Industry Report

This report analyzes the $20 million dollar plastics industry in Mexico including sales of machinery & equipment, resins and finished products.

Our analysts provide insight on business trends, foreign investment, top end markets and plastics processing activity. The report also provides important data on exports, production, employment and value of plastics products manufactured.

Learn more

Plastics Caps & Closures Market Report

The annual recap of top trends and future outlook for the plastics caps & closures market features interviews with industry thought leaders and Bill Wood’s economic forecast of trends in growing end markets. You will also gain insight on trends in caps design, materials, machinery, molds & tooling and reviews of mergers & acquisitions.

Learn more

Upcoming Plastics News Events

January 14, 2015 - January 14, 2015Plastics in Automotive

February 4, 2015 - February 6, 2015Plastics News Executive Forum 2015

June 2, 2015 - June 3, 2015Plastics Financial Summit - Chicago 2015

September 16, 2015 - September 18, 2015Plastics Caps & Closures - September 2015

More Events