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SoCoBio (Universities of Southampton, Kent, Sussex, Portsmouth and NIAB EMR)

Plastic-eating yeast: towards plastics as feedstocks for synthetic biology

Primary Supervisor: Dr Tobias von der Haar (University of Kent)
Second Supervisor: Dr Andy Pickford (University of Portsmouth)

Synthetic metabolic pathways in yeast are used for the production of a growing number of high-value chemicals, including flavours and fragrances, as well as bulk chemicals like biofuels and platform chemicals that are fed into further chemical processes. Current approaches use glucose as carbon source for yeast growth, although projects to adapt yeast biology to cheaper feedstocks like xylose or cellulose are underway. The recent discovery of enzymes able to degrade plastics opens up the possibility of feeding synthetic biology processes using plastic waste, thereby both addressing an unmet waste management problem and providing a cheap carbon source for yeast synthetic biology.

This project will build on current work at both Kent and Portsmouth which has begun to investigate and improve biological plastic degradation systems. Objectives of the proposed work include: i) further development of our existing, secretion-based yeast expression systems, with the aims to increase productivity and to explore novel modes of expression such as cell-surface localisation; ii) exploring delivery options for feeding plastics into yeast fermentation systems; iii) expanding degradation options by expressing novel plastic-degrading enzymes as and when these are described in the literature; iv) investigating how plastic degradation products are incorporated into yeast metabolism (our preliminary data show that the products of PET degradation, EG and TPA, are both efficiently metabolised by baker’s yeast); and v) connecting plastic degrading capabilities with existing synthetic biology constructs.

Our approaches will include yeast genetics, yeast molecular biology and yeast metabolic engineering methodology regularly used in the applicants’ labs.