Eating Away a Plastic Disaster

Illinois Tech Student Researchers Working to Engineer Algae to Degrade Ocean Plastics

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By Casey Moffett

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Plastic-Eating Algea

Plastics are polluting the world’s oceans at an exponential rate, but students at Illinois Institute of Technology are working to genetically modify algae that could eat away at the growing problem.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates 8 million metric tons of plastic—or the weight of nearly 90 aircraft carriers—enter oceans annually, threatening wildlife and entering the food chain up to human consumption. But what if an organism could be used to break down the plastics?

“A bacteria that can degrade plastic was actually found in nature,” says Elias Kluiszo (BME/M.S. CHE 2nd Year), a member of the research team. “Japanese scientists discovered this bacteria in the soil outside of a recycling plant. Our work involves transferring the DNA that allows this bacteria to degrade plastic into an ocean-based organism.”

After isolating the gene from the bacteria’s DNA, it must be engineered so the organism receiving the gene can translate its instructions to produce the plastic-eating enzyme. The research team is implanting the gene into E. coli bacteria, which can carry genes independently of its own chromosomes. The DNA is then introduced to the algae through the E. coli, which in turn should secrete the enzyme to break down plastics.

The team is working to modify cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, which uses sunlight to produce its own food. Since the algae does not ingest the plastic, its enzyme-producing gene must be modified to secrete the enzyme at a rate that will break down plastic efficiently.

The students have successfully engineered the gene and implanted it into E. coli cells.

“We are still working on getting the (gene) into the cyanobacteria,” says Sadie Meunier (BCHM 4th Year).

“There was a lot of trial and error just to get the gene to work with the E. coli,” says Annah Ellingson (BIO 4th Year). “But it’s an exciting concept—a plastic-eating algae.”

The research is being conducted under the guidance of Nick Menhart, associate professor of biology, and Abhinav Bhushan, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, as part of Illinois Tech’s signature Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program. The IPRO Program joins undergraduate students from different academic disciplines to solve real-world problems through research.

Besides implementing skills in biology and bioengineering, the team has secured an attorney—an alumni of Illinois Tech’s Chicago-Kent College of Law—who has been working pro bono to help the students apply for a patent based on the research. The team is incorporated as Green Ocean, LLC. These measures would protect the research from bioengineering firms who may want to use it for future commercial purposes. Although the team has no immediate plans to introduce the modified algae into the wild, the students have discussed the possibilities and the ramifications that this could present.

“We already have algae cells in the ocean,” Meunier says. “We’re not introducing a new species. We’re just adding to it. That’s how I see it.”

“We’ve talked about how we would test it before we ever sent it into the wild,” says Claire Joswiak (BME 4th Year).

The team presented its research and results at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in November. It was one of more than 300 teams of students from around the world presenting research. Not only did the students get positive feedback and tips from faculty judges, they also got a good look at research projects from around the globe.

“It was interesting to see how the research reflected their cultures,” Meunier says. “For example, there were a bunch of teams from Italy and Greece doing research on grape vines.”

Mostly, the students say, they found the opportunity to conduct their own research to be most exciting.

“Seeing the project come from an idea, presenting it, taking it to the lab, and seeing it grow into what it has become is exciting,” says Samita Shrestha (BME 4th Year). “It’s exciting to see it come to life.”

Photo: Sadie Meunier (BCHM 4th Year), Samitha Shrestha (BME 4th Year), and Wallace Burns (BME 3rd Year) work in the lab to genetically engineer algae that will degrade ocean plastics.