Fossil-based plastics have become a ubiquitous part of our lives, from the products we use on a daily basis to the infrastructure we depend on. However, the negative environmental impact of plastics cannot be ignored. Non-biodegradable plastics end up polluting our oceans and causing harm to marine life, among other environmental problems. To address this issue, researchers are working to develop sustainable alternatives to conventional plastics.
One promising approach to creating biodegradable plastics is the use of bioplastics, which are derived from renewable sources and produced by microbes. Microbial production enables the use of side streams as feedstock and thus would not further deplete natural resources.
The demand for new bioplastics is surging and researchers like Tuula Tenkanen, at the Centre for Young Synbio Scientists, are working to further improve their properties.
"Conventional plastics are not biodegradable, which means that when they enter the environment, they accumulate and cause problems like the death of marine animals," Tenkanen explains. "Therefore, we need new alternatives with similar properties, but which would be biodegradable and we are aiming to improve this area.”
Tenkanen is using synthetic biology to develop biobased polymers known as polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). PHAs can be composed of a wide variety of monomers, and the monomer composition determines the properties of the PHA. By using different monomers, researchers can create plastics with a wide range of properties.
One of the challenges of creating PHAs with specific properties is the need for efficient and specific biosynthesis. This is where synthetic biology comes in. Tenkanen and her team are using AI to design new enzymes to synthesize PHAs.
"We are aiming to create new-to-nature PHA synthases using the help of AI," Tenkanen explains. "Specifically, we are using a variational auto-encoder, which is a generative deep learning model that can be used to generate new data that resembles the training data. In this case, we have used around 10,000 natural PHA synthases and also some lipases to train the model."
Tenkanen's ultimate goal is to create bioplastics that have similar properties to conventional plastics, but with the added benefit of being biodegradable. However, she also sees her research as an opportunity to explore the intersection of AI and enzyme design.
"We are not only aiming to produce PHAs with desired substrate specificity, but also our aim is to learn about using deep learning and enzyme design," Tenkanen says. "And we hope that we can use this knowledge for the design of other enzymes too."
Overall, synthetic biology offers researchers new tools to accelerate the green transition, and Tenkanen believes that it has a crucial role to play in replacing fossil fuel-based chemistry.
"We need to find ways to replace fossil fuel-based chemistry," she says. "And I think that synthetic biology has a very important role in that."
The research conducted by Tuula Tenkanen contributes to the following UN sustainability goals:
Goal 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure - The research focuses on developing improved bioplastics through AI-assisted enzyme design, aligning with the goal of fostering innovation and promoting sustainable industrialization.
Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production - By working on biodegradable bioplastics as alternatives to fossil-based plastics, the research addresses the need for more responsible consumption and production patterns to reduce plastic pollution and environmental harm.
Goal 14: Life Below Water - Developing biodegradable plastics helps mitigate plastic pollution in oceans and water bodies, supporting the preservation of marine life and contributing to the goal of conserving underwater ecosystems.
Goal 15: Life on Land - The research aligns with the goal of protecting terrestrial ecosystems by promoting sustainable alternatives to conventional plastics, which can help reduce plastic waste and its negative impacts on land environments.
Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals - The research combines synthetic biology, AI, and enzyme design to tackle environmental challenges, showcasing the potential for interdisciplinary partnerships to drive sustainable innovation.