Joosu Kuivanen wants to transform plastic into proteins

The oceans are full of plastic. Skolar Award finalist Joosu Kuivanen from VTT Technical Research Center of Finland wants to tackle the problem with microbes. His research idea is focused on exploring the microbes that degrade plastic, so that they could be used as a protein source and turned into fish food.

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Your research idea offers one potential solution to the plastic problem in the world. What is new in your idea?

Well, transforming oil-based material and garbage into food is a completely new concept. The outrageous amount of plastic in the world has encouraged us to find new ways to use and recycle plastic, especially those plastics that aren’t biodegradable. Biotechnology is an attractive but almost unexplored route to recycle plastic. Microbes have been exposed to plastic for decades. Their evolution is fast and we can even accelerate it further in the lab.

But there just isn’t enough knowledge of plastic degrading microbes and their enzymes yet. I want to change this.

What made you want to get on the Slush stage and pitch your work?

I’m sure pitching will be an extremely useful experience to get some performing skills and learn to squeeze my work into a few minutes. Of course Slush is also an exciting place to be, because there you can meet interesting people who are keen on creating new technologies. And then there is the €100K Skolar Award prize!

In this competition we look for the wild in research. What is the wildest thing you would like to accomplish as a researcher?

I think it would be quite wild to make this process happen on a larger scale. To turn plastic into protein that could be used as a food. It isn’t necessarily such a radical idea even. Ten years ago people would think it’s wild to eat bread made of crickets and now that’s becoming normal everyday life.

What do you think will happen with the plastic problem in 20 years?

It depends on if we can decrease the amount of plastic released into the environment.

We must first stop littering. There is quite a job in getting rid of the plastic that is already there, let alone if there would be more. But I’m optimistic and hoping that in the future there will be a lot of different kind of plastic harvesting and recycling systems and ways to process it. And I’m hoping I will be a part of that development.

What made you become a researcher?

I’ve been interested in nature since I was little. It fascinates me to discover how the nature works. I prefer applied research because I don’t just want to explore how something works, I want to make it work in a new way.

Joosu’s wild idea:

The core of the idea is a bioprocess, which converts plastics into protein. Some microbes capable of degrading a limited variety of plastics such as PET, the plastic soft drink bottles are made of. The microbes utilize plastic as food converting it into biomass. The resulting microbial biomass is rich in protein and has high nutritional value. This protein could be used further as fish feed. To get there, I need to find the right microbes. PET represents 10% of plastic waste, but is just one of the plastics in the oceans. Thus, microbes that would be able to eat other plastics, especially PE (36% of plastic waste) and PP (21% of plastic waste) would be important to find. After discovering the right microbes, I will use tools of advanced synthetic biology, such as CRISPR genome editing, to boost the plastic degrading capacity in the selected microbes. In the future, we could build small and mobile offshore biofactories collecting ocean plastic and producing protein in a bioprocess. The protein could feed fish sustainably on local farms.

Do you want to know more about Joosu’s research idea? Get in touch with us: me@skolar.fi