Finding nature-inspired alternatives to plastics focus of new center

graphic of a pile of plastics underwater
The mission of the Synthetic Biology Manufacturing of Advanced Materials Research Center is to push the frontiers of knowledge through convergent research; develop pathways to train a manufacturing workforce; leverage an environment of diversity; and enhance innovation in the manufacturing of synthetic biological materials. (Image: Aimee Felter/McKelvey School of Engineering)

Despite efforts to reduce the use of plastic or recycle it, most plastic produced in the world ends up in landfills, the oceans or dumped, bringing with it catastrophic effects on the environment, the ecosystem and the economy.

To address this, a team of researchers in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis has established the Synthetic Biology Manufacturing of Advanced Materials Research Center (SMARC) to create an integrated education, research and innovation ecosystem enabled by the convergence across multiple disciplines and research areas.

Its mission is to push the frontiers of knowledge through convergent research; develop pathways to train a manufacturing workforce that can harness artificial intelligence and the biological transformation in manufacturing; leverage an environment of diversity and inclusion to maximize human capital; and enhance innovation in the manufacturing of synthetic biological materials by understanding and overcoming barriers to technology adoption in partnership with industry.

Marcus Foston, an associate professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering, will co-lead the center with Fuzhong Zhang, a professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering and co-director of the center, which is funded in part by a five-year $3.6 million Growing Convergence Research grant from the National Science Foundation. With this funding, the team plans to develop a new class of biologically synthesized, protein-based and biodegradable materials that harness themes from nature to replace traditional petroleum-derived plastics.

“Our vision is a future in which advances in synthetic biology, biotechnology and biomanufacturing, machine learning, social sciences, materials science and mechanics converge to transition the world toward wide-spread use of bio-derived and biodegradable plastics from renewable feedstocks,” Foston said.

(Video: Taylor Bevirt/McKelvey School of Engineering)

Also on the Washington University leadership team are Guy Genin, the Harold and Kathleen Faught Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and Roman Garnett, an associate professor of computer science and engineering. Researchers from Northwestern University, Iowa State University and the University of South Florida bring together a convergence of cross-disciplinary expertise to evolve the plastics economy by developing a platform for the discovery of synthetic biological materials with desired properties.   

Foston and Zhang will lead a team that includes experts in synthetic biology, machine learning, polymer science, material mechanics and computational materials simulation. They will use machine learning aided with material screening and simulation approaches to accelerate the process of finding promising protein sequences that can be used to make biodegradable materials with targeted properties to replace plastics in both high- and low-value applications. In addition, they will develop synthetic biological methods and genetically engineered microbes to produce protein-based materials sustainably and economically. 

While much of the biomanufacturing industry has focused on medicines and biotherapeutics, this center will focus on fundamental scientific and engineering problems that occur during the design, development and manufacturing stages of synthetic biological materials, with the goal of leading a large-scale transition to an economy based upon sustainable and biodegradable plastics. This transition will begin with high-performance polymers.

“Synthetic biology has the potential to deliver the next generation of advanced materials with new functional properties to address a wide range of unmet needs,” Genin said. “With examples such as spider silk, elastin and resilin, synthetic biology also has the potential to leverage nature to provide access to affordable and sustainable production of novel macromolecular materials.”

Along with research, the center will include an education component.

“We will develop unique graduate educational frameworks for cross-disciplinary innovation at WashU, while simultaneously working to develop a pipeline of future innovators in the St. Louis community,” said Zhang, the center’s director of education and outreach. “This is a unique opportunity to impact our community and our world.”

The center will open with a major international symposium April 18-19. Until then, Foston said, their work is cut out for them.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for major impact in the region and world,” he said. “We are all thrilled to have these resources to bring together the particular strengths of WashU and St. Louis to solve a pressing global challenge.”

(Video: Kindea Labs)

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 165 full-time faculty, 1,420 undergraduate students, 1,614 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society’s greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.

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