Biting into Ocean Plastics
he National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that 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 team of Illinois Institute of Technology students is working to genetically modify algae that could eat away at this growing problem.
“Bacteria that can degrade plastic [were] actually found in nature,” says Elias Kluiszo (BME/M.S. CHE 2nd Year). “Japanese scientists discovered this bacteria in the soil outside of a recycling plant. Our work involves transferring the DNA that allows the bacteria to degrade plastic into an ocean-based organism.”
After isolating the gene from the bacterial 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, 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 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.
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 team, incorporated as Green Ocean, presented its research and results at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology last November, receiving positive feedback and tips from faculty judges.