Reduce, Reuse, Reinvent mutant plastic eating bacteria

Everyone had amazing chalk talks and I feel like I learned so much! This week, I especially enjoyed Ella’s chalk talk on making mutant enzymes that can degrade plastic. Although I am fascinated with the brain and the molecular biology that is being used to combat its diseases, Ella’s project caught my attention by addressing something bigger than ourselves and just as pertinent to our survival, the Earth.

At first, Ella really grabbed my attention with the estimate that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. In high school I learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other horrible pollutants in the water, but this prediction really put the problem in perspective, and frankly scared me. She then explained about the bacterium that can break down PET, which is found in all single-use water bottles. I was amazed that this bacterium even existed and how it had evolved to digest just what we need it to. Sadly, the enzyme that helps break down the plastic is not very effective right now, and that is where Ella’s project comes in.

Ella is using error prone PCR in order to make many different mutant versions of the enzyme PETase. I was blown away. I think using a machine that purposely makes errors in the enzymes DNA to create mutations to hopefully make this protein more effective is absolutely ingenious. She then would ligate the DNA into plasmids, transform the plasmids into E. coli, and test the bacteria’s ability to break down and survive on plastic effectively.

I also thought that Ella’s pictures of PCR and of the growth of the transformed E. coli made it much easier to understand than it otherwise would have been. Everything was well labeled, her protein pathways were easy to understand, and her talk flowed really nicely. I like how she connected it back to the big picture throughout her talk. For instance, in the middle of her talk she explained that the bacteria create a by product that can be used to create anti-freeze and will make cleaning up the oceans and using these bacteria economically enticing. Sadly, many people need a financial incentive in order to do the right thing. I really enjoyed this week and learning about everyone’s research.

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