The Future of Plastic: Advancements in Synthetic Biology and Sustainable Materials

The Future of Plastic: Advancements in Synthetic Biology and Sustainable Materials

Despite the ongoing efforts to reduce plastic use and promote recycling, an alarming amount of plastic still ends up in landfills and oceans, causing severe damage to the environment, ecosystems, and economy. To combat this global issue, the Synthetic Biology Manufacturing of Advanced Materials Research Center (SMARC) has been established at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.

Led by Marcus Foston and Fuzhong Zhang, the center aims to create an integrated ecosystem of education, research, and innovation that harnesses the power of synthetic biology and advanced materials. Through convergent research and interdisciplinary collaboration, the team at SMARC seeks to push the boundaries of knowledge, train a manufacturing workforce capable of harnessing artificial intelligence and biological transformation, and enhance innovation in the manufacturing of synthetic biological materials.

With a five-year $3.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the center plans to develop a new class of biologically synthesized, protein-based, and biodegradable materials as alternatives to traditional petroleum-derived plastics. By leveraging the principles found in nature, the team envisions a future where bio-derived and biodegradable plastics from renewable sources become the norm.

The center’s researchers, including experts in synthetic biology, machine learning, polymer science, material mechanics, and computational materials simulation, will employ machine learning and material screening techniques to identify promising protein sequences for the production of biodegradable materials with targeted properties. Additionally, they will develop synthetic biological methods and genetically engineered microbes to sustainably and economically produce protein-based materials.

While the biomanufacturing industry has primarily focused on medicines and biotherapeutics, SMARC will prioritize fundamental scientific and engineering challenges related to the development and manufacturing of synthetic biological materials. By spearheading a large-scale transition to a plastics economy based on sustainability and biodegradability, the center aims to address unmet needs and provide affordable access to novel materials.

In addition to their research efforts, SMARC will play a crucial role in education and outreach. The center plans to develop unique graduate educational programs and cultivate a pipeline of future innovators in the St. Louis community. By impacting both the local community and the wider world, SMARC seeks to make a significant and lasting contribution to solving the pressing global challenge of plastic pollution.

In April, the center will kick off with an international symposium, bringing together experts and stakeholders from around the world. The founding members of the center, alongside Washington University’s renowned faculty and strong alumni network, are poised to tackle this urgent issue head-on. They are determined to utilize the strengths of both the university and the St. Louis region to create a sustainable future and address one of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, known for promoting scientific excellence, innovation, and collaboration without boundaries, stands as a catalyst for economic development, preparing students to become leaders and innovators in solving society’s greatest challenges. With a commitment to research, education, and transformative ideas, the school aims to shape a future where synthetic biology and sustainable materials play a central role in mitigating the harmful effects of plastic waste.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

1. What is the Synthetic Biology Manufacturing of Advanced Materials Research Center (SMARC)?
The SMARC is a research center established at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. It aims to create an integrated ecosystem of education, research, and innovation that harnesses the power of synthetic biology and advanced materials.

2. What is the goal of SMARC?
The center aims to develop biologically synthesized, protein-based, and biodegradable materials as alternatives to traditional petroleum-derived plastics. It seeks to transition to a plastics economy based on sustainability and biodegradability.

3. How will SMARC achieve its goals?
SMARC will employ machine learning and material screening techniques to identify promising protein sequences for the production of biodegradable materials with desired properties. Additionally, they will develop synthetic biological methods and genetically engineered microbes to sustainably produce protein-based materials.

4. What sectors does SMARC prioritize?
While the biomanufacturing industry has primarily focused on medicines and biotherapeutics, SMARC prioritizes the development and manufacturing of synthetic biological materials. It aims to address unmet needs and provide affordable access to novel materials.

5. How will SMARC contribute to education and outreach?
SMARC plans to develop unique graduate educational programs and cultivate a pipeline of future innovators in the St. Louis community. It aims to make a significant and lasting contribution to solving the global challenge of plastic pollution by impacting the local community and the wider world.

Key Terms and Jargon:

– Synthetic Biology: The interdisciplinary field that combines biology and engineering to design and construct new biological parts, devices, and systems with improved or novel functions.

– Advanced Materials: Materials with enhanced properties or characteristics that provide superior performance compared to traditional materials.

– Biodegradable: Materials that can be broken down by natural processes into simpler, harmless substances over time.

– Petroleum-Derived Plastics: Plastics that are produced from crude oil or natural gas.

– Protein-Based Materials: Materials produced using proteins or peptides as building blocks, offering potential biodegradability and sustainability.

– Sustainable Materials: Materials that are produced, used, and disposed of in a way that minimizes negative environmental impacts and supports long-term ecological balance.

Related Links:

Washington University in St. Louis School of Engineering
National Science Foundation

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