Can High-Throughput Assays Identify Microbes That Degrade Polyethylene Plastics?

Mimi Yung | 21-FS-002

Project Overview

This LDRD feasibility study addressed the question of whether high-throughput assays can be developed to identify microbes that degrade plastics, for potential use in recycling environmentally unfriendly plastic waste products. Here, we focused efforts on developing agar-based assays for the degradation of powdered nylon-6 as well as fluorescent bead-based assays for the degradation of polystyrene. Several microbial strains were genetically constructed to express or secrete enzymes known to degrade these plastics as positive controls for the assays. Results from this work establish a working agar-based assay for nylon-6 degradation, while preliminary results suggest that further optimization of the fluorescent-bead based assay for polystyrene degradation will be required.

Mission Impact

This work provides a key capability for assessing microbial plastics degradation that will be useful for identifying natural or engineered microbes with enhanced plastics degradation activity, ultimately leading to potential sustainable solutions to utilize and upcycle existing petroleum-derived plastics. The ability to upcycle petroleum-derived plastics will play an important role in a viable, circular bioeconomy by addressing current global waste and energy problems. As such, this work fits well within the Bioscience and Bioengineering core competency, as it provides a method to support developing solutions for bioenergy and sustainability challenges.