KU researchers gaining acclaim for ability to create fungi that help recycle plastics into valuable pharmaceuticals

photo by: Courtesy KU/Chris Rabot

Post-consumer plastics degraded in this study. A) From left to right: LDPE plastic grocery bag, HDPE milk jug, LDPE laboratory squeeze bottle, Pacific gyre waste collected from Santa Catalina Island, California. B) The distribution of diacid products after post-consumer polyethylene waste degradation using the optimized reaction.

You may not be able to pronounce several of the ingredients in your pharmaceuticals, but chances are you really won’t be able to guess what produces them: Fungi that love to help decompose plastic bottles, bags and other such waste found in the world’s oceans.

No, it is not just any fungi that will take on that task, but researchers at the University of Kansas are unlocking ways to genetically modify a common soil fungus so that it not only helps break down plastics but then produces several compounds that can be used in a range of pharmaceutical products.

Researchers in KU’s molecular biology department are now getting some international attention from the scientific community for their work on the project. Details of the project were recently published in the scientific journal of the German Chemical Society. The KU process is gaining acclaim because it not only is effective but also relatively fast.

“With a lot of these attempts, the fungus can digest the material, but it takes months because the plastics are so hard to break down,” Berl Oakley, a distinguished professor in molecular biology, said of his team’s work via a KU press release. “But this breaks the plastic down fast. Within a week you can have the final product.”

photo by: Courtesy: KU/Chris Rabot

Berl Oakley

The final products are chemical compounds such as asperbenzaldehyde, citreoviridin and mutilin, some of which have uses ranging from targeting cancer cells to serving as antibacterial agents in a variety of drugs.

The idea of fungi producing useful pharmaceutical ingredients is not new. Penicillin is a classic example of a valuable chemical compound that comes from fungi. Researchers for years have been studying the capabilities of fungi in that regard, but the era of genome sequencing has created millions of new possibilities.

Oakley’s team — which includes KU researcher Elizabeth Oakley and five researchers from USC — has honed gene-targeting procedures to change the genes of fungi in ways that produce new compounds.

“A lot of companies have done good work over the years, but it was very much incomplete, because they were just growing things in the incubator and examining them for production of new compounds — but 95 percent of the gene clusters were just silent since they are not ‘turned on’ until needed,” Berl Oakley said via a release. “They weren’t doing anything. So, there are lots more things to discover.”

The team focused on finding fungi that could be used to help digest polyethylene plastics because that is a particularly difficult type of plastic to recycle. For this project, they harvested polyethylenes from the Pacific Ocean that had collected in a harbor at Catalina Island off the coast of California.

Oakley believes the process his team is developing could be a game-changer for the recycling industry in the future. He 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. He added that the work is emblematic of KU’s Earth, energy and environment research theme, geared toward “increasing understanding to help sustain the life of our planet and its inhabitants.”

“I think everybody knows that plastics are a problem,” Oakley said. “They’re accumulating in our environment. There’s a big area in the North Pacific where they tend to accumulate. But also you see plastic bags blowing around — they’re in the rivers and stuck in the trees. The squirrels around my house have even learned to line their nest with plastic bags. One thing that’s needed is to somehow get rid of the plastic economically, and if one can make something useful from it at a reasonable price, then that makes it more economically viable.”

— The KU News Service contributed to this report.


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