Synthetic and Biological Research For a Sustainable Planet

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Posted by: Lea Goldstone Category: Environment

Synthetic and Biological Research For a Sustainable Planet

Imagining approaches to tackling climate change and sustainability issues, many picture large-scale projects as the most effective solutions. Reducing the number of cars on the road. Building large-scale sustainable energy production facilities. Reorganizing lengthy supply chains. While these are all necessary and important in the long run, these methods of controlling climate change are expensive, time-consuming, and may not be affordable for those who would take advantage of them. To make sustainability and green business practices more sustainable for large and small entities alike, scientists and engineers are looking to nature for more practical and affordable solutions for the global community of today.

This article will highlight several ongoing biological and synthetic research projects introducing solutions to carbon emissions and waste products that have been developing in recent years. Investing in these branches of research is both necessary to build a more sustainable consumer landscape and can be a fascinating means of contributing to the fight against climate change. 

Microbes as a Response to Carbon Sequestration

The majority of the earth’s carbon is held within rocks and kerogen, the material from which petroleum and natural gas are harvested. The rest is held in our oceans, living organisms, and the atmosphere. As is well known, human production of atmospheric carbon via petroleum burning and other fuel sources (more commonly known as greenhouse gas production), is contributing to climate change by trapping heat in the atmosphere. In order to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, companies have been engaging in carbon sequestration.

Carbon sequestration takes two forms: geologic and biological. Geological carbon sequestration often involves the pressurization of gaseous carbon dioxide until it becomes a liquid, where it is then injected into porous rock formations in geologic basins. However, this process is understandably costly and requires a high level of expertise to maintain. 

On the other hand, biological carbon sequestration using microbes is a far more affordable and accessible means of carbon sequestration. Soil has been classified as the largest carbon reservoir on earth. Carbon is naturally captured into the soil through plant photosynthesis and organism decomposition. By using soil microbial inoculants which improve carbon sequestration, scientists hope to greatly reduce carbon emissions. 

Efforts to maximize microbial carbon dioxide sequestration currently focus on improving the efficiency and efficacy of CO2 fixation and reducing emissions. In a 2018 study, scientists found that in microbial heterotrophs (like bacteria and other complex microbes which facilitate plant functioning), CO2 fixation can be enhanced by biological engineering, including the creation of an additional CO2 fixing bypass and engineering heterotrophs capable of growing with CO2 as a sole carbon resource. Not only can microbes sequester carbon, but they can also produce biofuels and other chemicals in a less environmentally damaging way.

These are complex feats of chemical engineering. Luckily, scientists are also finding naturally occurring microbes that, for instance, have faster metabolic rates and thus sequester carbon faster than their counterparts. Introducing specific microbes to particular categories of land (think farmland vs grazing land) can increase the overall carbon sequestration over the short and long term. While studies on the use of microbes for carbon sequestration are relatively sparse, their potential to reduce the estimated 11.2% of US greenhouse gas annual emissions cannot be underestimated. 

“Superworm” Digestive Enzyme Breaking Down 

The United States alone produces over 37.5 million tons of plastics per year. While biodegradable or bio-friendly plastic substitutes have become more prominent over the past decade, they are no solution to the plastic products overtaking landfills and oceans across the globe. Plastic takes over 50 years to decompose and, even where it does, those microplastics find their way into our water systems, food systems, and ultimately our bodies. The negative effects of microplastics on both humans and the environment are only recently coming to light, however, all signs indicate it causes issues in cell development, neurotoxicity, and proliferation of carcinogens (among the first findings). 

Amid these findings, scientists have been working to find a natural way to dispose of and recycle Styrofoam trash, which accounts for as much as 30% of global landfill space. They have found one potential solution in a humble form: the mealworm. In a controlled study of what they named “super worms”, Australian researchers compared mealworms fed a “healthy” diet of bran and a polystyrene diet, polystyrene being the plastic that makes up Styrofoam. They found that 66% of the worms continued their natural lifecycle, indicating that the worms contained an enzyme that could effectively break down plastic into a biological material. Researchers stated that the goal of this study is not to create superworm farms out of landfills, but rather to isolate the enzyme found in the worms’ digestive tract to implement into trash disposal mechanisms. This includes worm-based composting kits which individuals could use themselves along with other recycling techniques. 

Plastic-Destroying Fungi 

At the Chinese Academy of Sciences Kunming Institute of Botany, researchers have identified a fungus that is another potential solution to breaking down non-biodegradable plastics. Aspergillus tubingensis is a fungus naturally found in soil, but which researchers found can also thrive on the surfaces of plastics. It secretes enzymes that break down bonds between individual molecules and uses the mycelia to break them apart. Interestingly, in this study, the researchers found this particular fungus within a garbage dump in Islamabad, Pakistan. Fungi like the Aspergillus tubingensis can be used to help address the issue of large and small plastic waste. The fungus can not only break down large plastic materials in a matter of weeks but can even break down microplastics into compounds less likely to affect the health or functioning of living organisms. 

Conclusion

As the world emerges from the constraints of the pandemic, investing in sustainable technology for wide-scale use has never been more pressing. The research and development behind new methods of carbon sequestration synthetically produced microbes, and investigation into fungi as a means of breaking down plastic could not occur without monetary support via funds and investments. Oftentimes researchers and development entities seek out public funding which can be sparse and difficult to maintain. Private investors have the opportunity to either independently invest or invest jointly with public funds in order to make limited financial resources go further and increase the funding pool available for development projects. The creativity and ingenuity behind these research projects can serve as inspiration for investors themselves to seek out unique opportunities to get involved, carrying research of this kind into the mainstream.

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