Once hailed as wonder materials, plastics are now spoken about as a threat to the very well-being of our planet. Dr Kirk Malone ponders whether the solution could lie at the interface of biotechnology and materials science.
Plastics underpin almost every aspect of modern life and bring many significant benefits to the environment. They help preserve the food we eat, therefore reducing waste; they reduce weight in aircraft and cars, so lowering CO2 emissions; and they’re increasingly used in medicine, helping to limit cross-infections.
However, plastics also present an environmental challenge. The hugely popular BBC documentary Blue Planet II revealed the threat to our oceans from plastic waste and transformed public opinion virtually overnight. Now there is a fast-growing realisation that society needs to move away from fossil fuel-derived plastics and adopt more sustainable materials. We need fresh thinking to tackle the build-up of plastics in our environment.
Fortunately, modern biotechnology gives us the tools to harness nature to help solve these challenges. Industrial biotechnology (IB) is the application of nature’s catalysts – enzymes – and biological systems to produce and process materials, chemicals and energy.
The UK is leading the way in applying IB to develop sustainable materials, with a number of bio-based plastics now on the market. For instance, Vegware Ltd specialises in plantbased compostable food-service packaging, while Biome Bioplastics Ltd is developing IB approaches to biodegradable polyesters.
With the right investment, biomanufacturing could meet the growing demand for bioderived and biodegradable plastics from renewable feedstocks, supporting the UK government’s Clean Growth Strategy, which aims to decouple increasing pollution from economic development.
And there is even greater promise ahead: we’re on the cusp of a new wave of science that combines the latest developments in IB with materials science to discover new bio-based advanced materials.
Researchers at the University’s world-leading Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) and the Henry Royce Institute, the UK’s national centre for research and innovation of advanced materials, are now joining forces to help deliver this biomaterials revolution.
These two academic communities are taking inspiration from nature to develop next-generation synthetic biological materials with amazing properties, such as enhanced strength, flexibility and transparency. Environmental impacts can be considered from the outset, giving scalable routes to affordable and sustainable biomanufacture.
Biotechnology can also help clean up the environment. There are signs that natural microbes are beginning to adapt to unnatural contaminants, evolving biochemical pathways to turn plastics into energy. MIB researchers are working to supercharge this process to engineer enzymes orders of magnitude faster than nature, to aid end-of-life recycling and tackle environmental contamination. In this way, IB could deliver a truly circular economy in plastics from sustainable production through to materials reuse.
This research requires an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together biologists, chemists, materials scientists and engineers. By working across its IB and advanced materials research beacons, Manchester is well placed to deliver next-generation materials while tackling the demands of sustainable production and offering new solutions to global grand challenges.