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

Gear pump maker Witte expands in Germany and USA

July 25, 2014 2:15 pm ET

Witte Pumps & Technology GmbH, the German maker of gear pumps for extrusion, has moved into a new headquarters factory in the Hamburg area, and the...    More

Image

Austrian mold maker seeking North American manufacturing partner

July 25, 2014 1:49 pm ET

An Austrian mold maker is looking for a manufacturing location in North America.    More

Image

DuPont resins help take Nike golf balls 'Fore!'ward

July 25, 2014 1:07 pm ET

It may be difficult to imagine just how much science, not to mention rubber and plastic components, go into a golf ball. But global giant DuPont Co....    More

Image

Bioplastics maker wins government funding

July 25, 2014 12:13 pm ET

Canadian bioplastics maker Solegear Bioplastics Inc. has won $1.6 million in funding from the government-sponsored Western Innovation Initiative...    More

Image

Tooling Technology has new private equity owner

July 25, 2014 11:55 am ET

New York private equity firm GenNx360 Capital Partners has partnered with management to buy Tooling Technology Holdings LLC, a diversified Ohio-based ...    More

Market Reports

Plastics Recyclers Data Report & Directory

This exclusive MS Excel database contains all the companies from Plastics News' ranking of top North American Recyclers and Brokers by reprocessed volume and also includes a directory with materials processes, services offered and company contact information. Data is based on primary research by PN editorial staff.

Learn more

2014 Injection Molding Industry Report

GROWTH, OPPORTUNITY IN SIGHT FOR INJECTION MOLDERS IN 2014

In the wake of the economic turbulence earlier in this decade, molders today find themselves in much better shape. Molders are gaining a competitive advantage by investing in people, equipment and seeking inroads into new markets on a global scale.

Growth in the injection molding industry is going to be driven by low financing costs and a continued move to reshore some business.

Learn more

Shale Gas Market - Analysis of North American Region

This report highlights the impact of shale-based natural gas on the North American plastics market and features an in-depth analysis of production trends in the United States during 2013 and a forecast for 2014 and beyond.

Learn more

Upcoming Plastics News Events

September 10, 2014 - September 12, 2014Plastics Caps & Closures 2014

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

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

More Events