Discovery and Development of Biocatalytic Solutions to Mitigate Microplastic Pollution
Dr Tom Swift
Dr Refaat Hamed
Dr Sankar Sivarajah
Applications accepted all year round
Self-Funded PhD Students Only
Plastic contamination is a great ecological disaster facing modern society; a burden overwhelmingly heaped on the least economically developed countries. Overuse of non-degradable polymer materials are known to be contaminating drinking water supplies. Polymer contamination comes in many forms; from solid articles visible to humans, to the spread of microplastics (MP) through the food chain. MP can lead to harmful effects on living organisms and act as carriers of various toxins such as additives from industrial production processes and persistent contaminants by the sorption in waters. Those toxins may cause great health problems to humans.
In western societies regulators have targeted cosmetic companies acting as polluters – yet research shows this is only one potential source of MP entering the food chain. For example the wear and tear of rubber commonly used in automobile tyres is now thought to be responsible for at least 10% of all the plastic entering the ocean annually. The surface abrasion of these non-degradable materials, used throughout commercial and domestic spheres, is releasing MP which spread globally and are of grave concern in non-developed areas.
In India and many African countries (including Egypt and Nigeria), even when reuse and/or recycling practices are present, they often lack legal foundation and are therefore conducted on an ad hoc basis.
Employing state-of-art tools in bioinformatics, we have identified a library of new putative enzymes against a variety of polymer materials. We will study the susceptibility of main polymer components in MP to degradation from identified candidate biocatalysts. The identified enzymes will be further improved by directed evolutionary approaches to optimize their capacity to degrade MP within water streams. We will study international water streams, identifying and targeting MP most prevalent in developing countries (including India, Egypt and/or Nigeria).
Our goal is to create the requirements for an affordable prototype catalytic device that can harbour immobilised enzymes capable of degrading a range of MP. These could be introduced to fresh / pre-treated water storage systems to reduce the levels of MP and convert them to non-harmful materials. The student will undertake a review of the efficacy of such a device when used in affected regions of target countries – identifying societal, economical and developmental factors that will target its use most effectively. The student will explore the development of a circular business model, allowing the developed prototype to an affordable solution. The proposed work will involve a multidisciplinary (biosciences and management) supervisory team and has potentially wide applications.
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4) Li, J. et al., Microplastics in Freshwater Systems: A Review on Occurrence, Environmental Effects, and Methods for Microplastics Detection. Water Research. 2018.
5) Cole, M. et al., Microplastics as Contaminants in the Marine Environment: A Review. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 2011.
6) Jan Kole et al., Wear and Tear of Tyres: A Stealthy Source of Microplastics in the Environment. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2017.