This month German science and technology company Merck announced the winners of its 2021 Future Insight Prize. The € 1 million prize in the category of ‘Food Generation’ was awarded to Stephen Techtmann, of Michigan Technological University and to Ting Lu at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for their project ‘From Waste to Food: A Generator of Future Food’. The researchers’ project uses microbes to first degrade plastic waste and then produce edible protein from that degraded waste.
This technology promises to transform waste streams into nutritious food supplements, thus solving the two problems of increasing food scarcity and plastic waste simultaneously. The researchers envision a system whereby people throw in plastic waste or non-edible biomass. The waste would go into processing reactors to be broken down by heat. Once broken down, the by-product would be fed into a vat with the bacterial community, which could chew on whatever flows there and grows. The cells would then be dried down into a powder for later use.
The core of the proposed technology is to harness synthetic microbial consortia – a combination of natural and rationally engineered microorganisms – in order to efficiently convert waste into food.
The project will comprise four research goals:
- Proof of concept for direct conversion from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) to protein powder
- Augmentation of biosafety for food and for the environment
- Introduction of nutritional and health-promoting contents
- Expansion of the technology to include additional plastics or other types of waste
The proposed work will establish a transformative basis for food generation.
Deconstructing plastic’s polymer chains
The first step in converting plastic and inedible plant wastes to protein powder is to depolymerize the wastes into more biodegradable compounds — that is, break the polymer into its monomers, or individual, components. The current process converts plastic into compounds that look somewhat like oil, using heat and a reactor that can deconstruct plastic’s polymer chains. The oil-like compounds are then fed to a community of oil-eating bacteria that Techtmann’s lab has been studying. The bacteria flourish on their oily diet, producing more bacterial cells, which are about 55% protein. This lets the team quickly convert plastic to protein.
Techtmann is an environmental microbiologist who studies microbial communities in diverse natural environments. “Environmental microbes are capable of catalyzing a wide array of chemical reactions, many of which may have industrial applications. My lab studies how complex microbial communities can cooperate to perform functions of industrial interest” he says. “We use engineered natural organisms to break down the plastics and non-edible plant biomass to convert into food.
“My role in this project is to identify and grow bacterial communities from the environment that have the ability to use wastes like plastic, as well as discover novel enzymes to break down plastics and other wastes more efficiently.”
Working with the team members at Michigan Tech, Lu aims to engineer bacteria to enrich the protein powder with maximum nutrition — specific amino acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids. “In my lab, we focus on microbial synthetic biology, which harnesses engineered gene circuits to program microbial cell functionalities for the purpose of uncovering biological design principles and advancing biotechnological applications,” he says.
Both prizewinners thanked Merck for the € 1 million Future Insight Prize that they were jointly awarded to further their research: “Our joint research will allow us to take the plastic waste we’re generating in the world and turn it into something valuable: food and fuel.”
“The winners of this year’s Future Insight Prize have created a ground-breaking technology with the potential to generate a safe and sustainable source of food while reducing the environmental harms associated with plastic waste and traditional agricultural methods,” said Belén Garijo, Chair of the Executive Board and CEO of Merck. “We congratulate Ting Lu and Stephen Techtmann for their promising research, and hope that the Future Insight Prize will help to accelerate their efforts.”