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Fully-funded UoY project: Enzymes for a circular economy of textiles for the fashion industry


Department of Biology

York United Kingdom Biochemistry Bioinformatics Biotechnology Molecular Biology Structural Biology

About the Project

The textile industry is notoriously unsustainable and accounts for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions and 20% of global waste water. Keratinous fibres such as wool and silk are important materials for the garment industry and other applications. There is currently, no effective means for recycling keratinous fibres and textiles, which consequently are destined for landfill or incineration at their end of life. We propose to identify powerful new enzymes for keratin digestion that can be used to convert keratinous fibres into their constituent amino acid building blocks. These amino acids can subsequently be re-polymerised to make new polymers that can be spun to produce new virgin-quality fibres for textile applications.

Keratin forms some of the toughest and most resilient biomaterials known, serving to insulate and protect animals in materials such as fur, wool, claws, hooves and horns. Keratin is a fibrous protein, whose strength and resilience result from its highly cross-linked structure, which requires harsh chemical conditions to break down. This also makes keratinous fibres very difficult to recycle or use as animal feed. A small number of invertebrate species have evolved the unusual ability to survive on a diet of keratin. The larvae of clothes moths, such as Tineola bisselliella live on a diet of keratin and rapidly destroy silk and woolen textiles. Clothes moths have been studied in terms of the development of pest-control interventions, but remarkably little is understood regarding their ability to digest keratin.

In this studentship, the successful candidate will work to identify and biochemically characterise the key proteins and enzymes involved in keratin breakdown from T. bisselliella. The student will combine transcriptomic and proteomic studies of the digestive system in order to identify a short list of interesting enzymes for further study. We are particularly interested in activities that destabilise keratin structure to allow proteases access to their substrates. The student will undertake experiments to produce recombinant forms of these enzymes using bacterial and fungal expression systems used regularly in our lab. Target proteins will be studied for their biochemical action on keratin. The student will work closely with an experienced post-doctoral researcher, who is working on related projects and can provide instruction in the necessary methodologies. The student will consider how these enzymes may be employed in the development of circular textile production.

This studentship is funded by the University of York in association with the Textile Circularity Centre (TCC), a major programme led by the Royal College of Art (RCA), which is developing technologies for textile circularity. There will be joint supervision from the RCA for broader aspects of the studentship, which will involve interactions with researchers from the design sector and other components of the fashion supply chain. The student will have the opportunity to gain a broad understanding of the textile sector and the move toward sustainable and circular textile systems. The University of York is a partner in the TCC and our research group at York includes a small team working as part of the centre.

The Department of Biology at the University of York is committed to recruiting extraordinary future scientists regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or career pathway to date. We understand that commitment and excellence can be shown in many ways and have built our recruitment process to reflect this. We welcome applicants from all backgrounds, particularly those underrepresented in science, who have curiosity, creativity and a drive to learn new skills.

Entry Requirements: Students with, or expecting to gain, at least an upper second class honours degree, or equivalent, are invited to apply. The interdisciplinary nature of this programme means that we welcome applications from students with backgrounds in any biological, chemical, and/or physical science, or students with mathematical backgrounds who are interested in using their skills in addressing biological questions.

Programme: PhD in Biology (3 years)

Start date: 1st October 2021


Funding Notes

This studentship is fully funded for 3 years by the University of York and covers: (i) a tax-free stipend at the standard Research Council rate (£15,605 for 2021 entry but typically increases annually in line with inflation)), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees at the UK rate

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