After her trip to South America, Pria Anand decided to see if the endophytes (fungi) she collected could be used in bioremediation—simply put, if they could break down garbage. Anand was able to show that a chemical reaction did take place when one of her endophytes was introduced to plastic. Fellow student Jeffrey Huang furthered the research by analyzing additional endophytes that were gathered on the same trip to find those that broke down chemical bonds most efficiently, and finally, Jon Russell isolated one family in particular that showed the most promise for bioremediation. He then went on to identify the enzyme that worked the best on polyurethane—that polymer that is used in everything from skateboard wheels to spandex bike shorts. Polyurethane is extraordinarily tough, which is great when a manufacturer wants to make a durable product. The downside is that polyurethane doesn’t readily decompose, and literally tons and tons of products made with it can be found in landfills throughout the world. If the Yale students’ discovery could efficiently degrade this plastic, that would be significant.
Well developed research abilities aside, it was a classic “no brainer” for Jon Russell to bring his work to the Center’s Biological Division; even his professor, Dr. Strobel, referred to it as “one-stop shopping for scientists who are looking to take the next step in advancing their research.” The Center is also known for bridging the gap between discovery and the involvement of those who have the funds to take initial results to the next level—be it pharmaceutical companies or other investors. It doesn’t hurt that the Center has the ability to move a laboratory investigation along rapidly—something unique in an academic setting—processing tens of thousands of samples a day, thanks in part to those libraries of information Janie helps to curate.
The Center’s collaborative method is another unique feature; once a project such as Jon’s is selected, the researcher is paired with a member of the Center’s staff, and they take up the investigation together. While high tech tends to be modus operandi, every now and then low tech gets the job done—or at least the Center’s version of “low tech.” Janie suggested a trial to Jon that was almost reminiscent of an art project she might do at home with her young daughters—it involved plastic beads and brightly colored dye, and a deceptively simple process: “I suggested to Jon that he use polystyrene beads impregnated with dye that would release if the beads started to decompose.” Keeping in mind that we’re talking about miniscule amounts of matter breaking down, Janie also advised Jon to filter the media that housed his experiment in order to separate liquids from solids. “There are other ways to test for plastic degradation but the dye-based method relies on fluorescence—the emission of light—which allows us to detect even small levels of degradation,” she said.
But how exactly does a tiny fungus have the strength to break apart something as substantial as polyurethane? For starters, “fungus” does not equal “green slime” as one might imagine, and in the world of fungi, “tiny” does not equal “feeble.” “Basically,” says Janie, “the fungus produces an enzyme. Think of a tiny, specific machine, like a drill, that takes one kind of input and makes one kind of hole. In this case, the enzyme breaks a bond in polyurethane to produce smaller pieces, that can then be broken down by another enzyme for another bond type, and so on.” To put it mundanely, Russell and his classmates had discovered an all-natural demolition crew.