Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

High School Students Find Bacteria That Decompose Plastic

Last year, during their final year of high school in Vancouver, B.C., Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao created and carried out a research project that ultimately could help develop a new way to deal with plastic waste. They identified bacteria they found along the banks of Vancouver’s Fraser River that appear to naturally break down phthalates, an additive found in certain plastics.

A year earlier they had visited the Vancouver South Waste Transfer Station, where they saw a large pit of plastic waste, and though they knew plastics were useful because they are durable, flexible, and can be molded into so many useful shapes, they also knew plastics could be difficult to recycle.

“Let’s find a way to break them down, with bacteria. Sounds cool, right?” That’s a direct quote from their TED Talk, which you can watch below, and it shows their enthusiasm. In the video, Yao and Wang tell how they carried out the project working with a mentor, a professor at the University of British Columbia, and some of his graduate students.

Ultimately they found two strains of bacteria that were not previously associated with phthalate degradation but that could transform the phthalates into carbon dioxide, water and alcohol. In addition to finding bacteria in the riverbanks, as they initially planned, they found additional bacteria in the local landfill that were more effective.

For their efforts, the duo won first place at the regional level of the Sanofi BioGENEious Challenge/Canada, and their project was recognized as having the greatest commercial potential. After my first look at Wang and Yao’s project I thought this was a level of research beyond the high school level, that it was exceptional. I could not have been more wrong.

A quick scan of the research done by the many entrants in the BioGENEious Challenge was enough to convince me that there are a lot of very serious, very smart people coming out of our high schools. Their bio-themed topics truly are challenging, and their research is well done.

Jeanny Yao and Miranda Wang have moved up to the university level, where they intend to continue their research on fossil fuel chemicals. They hope to find other bacteria that can break down other contaminants. “Perhaps one day we’ll be able to tackle the problem of solid plastic waste,” they say. That sounds promising. Enjoy the video.

The Sanofi BioGENEious Challenge: Sponsored by the French multinational pharmaceutical company Sanofi, the BioGENEious Challenge is the flagship program of the Biotechnology Institute. It creates the opportunity for high school students to compete and be recognized for outstanding research in biotechnology. Having just completed its eleventh year, the Challenge thus far has welcomed more than 1100 high school students. Entrants design an original independent biotech research project that is judged by a panel of experts. Winning participants pass from regional to national competitions whose winners are showcased to more than 15,000 attendees at the annual BIO International Convention.

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