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SE McRobie: Identification, characterisation and industrial applications of plastic-degrading enzymes

Faculty: Science and Engineering / Business and Law

Supervisors: Dr Helen McRobie; Dr Mareike Posner; Dr Caray A Walker; Dr Swetketu Patnaik

Location: Cambridge

The interview for this project is expected to take place on Monday 15 April.

Apply online by 3 March 2024

Combining microbiology, biochemistry, genetic modification, chemical engineering and management research methodologies, this interdisciplinary project is an exciting opportunity for an enterprising and ambitious student to work in the cutting-edge research area of enzymatic plastic recycling and recycling technology adaptation by Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).

The student will work with a cross-disciplinary supervisory team who will guide and train them in various techniques to be used in the project. There may be a chance to interact with industrial partners and non-government organisations as well as environmental bodies as the project progresses.

Having access to various environmental isolates, the student will screen for new potential plastic degrading enzymes using experimental methods and bioinformatics. Using molecular biology and biochemistry techniques, the student will express, purify and characterise new enzymes.

To help inform the development of innovative enzyme-based recycling technologies, the student will meet stakeholders and design and analyse surveys to identify the drivers and barriers to SMEs adapting recycling technology.

Plastic pollution is threatening ecosystems, human health, and the economy, with the effects felt most severely by vulnerable/poor populations and recycling strategies to reduce plastic waste are needed.

Enzymes that can break down plastics such as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) are of particular interest as they offer repeated and specific degradation and recycling of plastic polymers into high quality plastic products. Naturally-occurring enzymes with some specificity to plastic polymers can be bioengineered to work optimally in industrial recycling processes.

To be successful, plastic recycling technologies must be scalable and economical across large as well as SMEs.

In the best possible case, research and technological advances in plastic recycling facilitate businesses to implement recycling strategies with the aim to work towards UK government’s net-zero strategy, which includes the use of recycled plastics (UK Government, 2021). This makes this an ambitious but potentially a high-gain and high-velocity project.

You will screen isolates (provided by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and environmental samples from the ARU repository) for PETase activity using an agar-clearing assay (Molitor, et al., 2019).

Identification of PETases from Antarctic samples is of biotechnological interest as these enzymes may allow plastic recycling at lower, more economic temperatures.

The genes encoding potential novel PETases will be identified using a) targeted PCR and b) whole metagenome sequence analysis (Kim, et al., 2022), and c) in silico genome mining to identify potential PETases from DNA/protein databases.

Helen McRobie and Caray Walker will take a lead in supervising and training you in microbiology and metagenomics techniques.

Aim: Develop economically feasible plastic recycling technology that will be translatable to industrial scale and takes into consideration the needs of SMEs.

  • Objective 1 (O1): Identification of potential novel plastic-degrading enzymes from environmental isolates using agar clearing-assays and employing metagenomic and in silico analysis.*
  • Objective 2 (O2): Biochemical and structural characterisation of novel enzyme candidates.
  • Objective 3 (O3): Analysis of the drivers and barriers to adapting novel recycling technology in SMEs through meeting with stakeholders, questionnaires, and surveys.

If you would like to discuss this research project please contact Helen McRobie: [email protected]

Apply online by 3 March 2024

Funding notes

The successful applicant for this project will receive a Vice Chancellor’s PhD Scholarship which covers the tuition fees and provides a UKRI equivalent minimum annual stipend for three years. For 2023/4 this was £18,622 per year. The award is subject to the successful candidate meeting the scholarship terms and conditions. Please note that the University asserts the right to claim any intellectual property generated by research it funds.

Download the full terms and conditions.