The process uses an everyday fungus to convert polyethylene, a difficult-to-recycle plastic, into key components for drug manufacturing
Plastic pollution continues to be one of humanity’s greatest challenges and there are more and more innovative projects to attack it, one of which is the one developed by scientists to convert plastic from the oceans into ingredients for medicines.
Recent fungal research conducted at the University of Kansas (KU) has helped transform hard-to-recycle plastic waste from the Pacific Ocean into key components for drug manufacturing.
As explained in the published study published in Angewandte Chemie, the journal of the German Chemical Society, the chemical-biological method for converting polyethylene uses an everyday soil fungus called Aspergillus nidulans that has been genetically altered.
“What we’ve done in this paper is first digest the polyethylenes using oxygen and some metal catalysts and this breaks the plastics down into diacids,” said co-author Berl Oakley, the Irving S. Johnson Distinguished Professor of Molecular Biology at KU.
Fungi research at @KUMolBio has helped transform tough-to-recycle plastic waste from the Pacific Ocean into key components for making pharmaceuticals. “The thing that’s different about this approach is it's two things — it's chemical, and it's fungal.” https://t.co/H8mviGQlw9
— KU News Service (@KUnews) January 17, 2023
The long chains of carbon atoms resulting from the decomposed plastics were then fed into genetically modified Aspergillus fungi.
The fungi, as designed, metabolized them into a number of pharmacologically active compounds, including commercially viable yields of asperbenzaldehyde, citreoviridine, and mutilin.
Results and effectiveness of the process
Oakley added that the new method was “weirdly” effective, because this new process breaks down plastics quickly. “In a week you can have the final product,” said the researcher.
“Of the mass of diacids that enters the culture, 42% returns as the final compound,” he said. “If our technique were a car, it would go 200 miles per hour, get 60 miles per gallon and run on recycled cooking oil,” he added.
The KU researcher said the long-term goal of the research is to develop procedures to break down all plastics into products that can be used as food by fungi, eliminating the need to sort them during recycling.