Plastic Pollution: How AI and Biotech can pave the way to solutions

Plastic Pollution: How AI and Biotech can pave the way to solutions

Plastic Pollution: How AI and Biotech can pave the way to solutions

By Niyathi Kukkapalli


With the rise of ChatGPT, much controversy arises on the ethics of AI. For example, a student writing their college essays could easily just plug in their prompt and leave the brain racking to AI. Luckily for teachers, AI isn’t to the point where it can write tear jerking essays – at least none that I know of. But as with all new technologies, with any con there is always a pro: AI isn’t all bad. One area of example is the topic of how to personalize education has been a hot topic in academia. AI provides intelligent tutoring systems, data driven insights, personalized recommendations, and even more. It has magnanimous potential, if used correctly that is. 

I’ve always thought Biotechnology is a strange combination. Biology is bright, full of life, and is the basis of how humans function. Technology is a cold, artificial entity that exists to provide functionality and entertainment to everyday human life. AI helps to bridge this gap even more than we already have. Many of the medical applications like reduction of the radiology therapy process or drug development are powered by AI. These are very well known applications, thus, in this blog I’ll be exploring applications of AI and biotech in plastic pollution. Did you know that the average person throws around 4.5 pounds of trash everyday? Most of that trash is plastic, and I mean, I think everyone would prefer for the grass to stay green and our beaches to stay sandy without bits of plastic scattered. 

Plastic trash on a beach
Just look at the trash! [Sourced from Yale E360]


Plastic Pollution and Biotechnology

Biopolymers are polymers that are biodegradable and biocompatible which assures minimal toxicity with tissue. To clarify, polymers are made of molecules which can then make materials like minerals or synthetics like plastics. Biopolymers are needed in this day and age considering how many ponds, lakes, and oceans are filled to the brim with buckets of plastic and metal suffocating marine life. Walking around in the cities of manufacturing countries like China or India, there’s plastic along the roads and practically everywhere you look. You might ask yourself, why is there so much plastic? Can’t we just throw it away?  Unfortunately, plastic has an immutable lifetime: it nevers fully breaks down. The solution we have for now involves grinding up the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces, which doesn’t get rid of it and doesn’t chemically break it down. This is where we can turn to AI for help. While AI solving the entirety of the waste issue may be beyond the scope of its capabilities for now, it still can help create biodegradable products which would reduce the plastic pollution that plagues our society. I recently stumbled upon an interesting article by Forbes with quite the eye-catching title: “This AI Designed Enzyme Can Devour Plastic Trash in Hours.” Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin announced that there is an enzyme called hydrolase that can break down plastic into its component molecules (carbon, hydrogen, silicon, etc.) which are much less harmful than the composite material of plastic itself. Hydrolase typically breaks down nutrients, but the team of researchers created a machine learning (ML) algorithm to explore and create a variant of this enzyme that could break down plastic. This raises the possible route of biological processes solving the world’s greatest problems which is a fantastic application of biology! The enzyme created by the research team’s algorithm uses depolymerization, a chemical process, to break down polymers into monomers. After the monomers are decontaminated, they are fed back into the plastic processes as a secondary raw material. Very cool! 


It doesn’t stop there. Researchers at The University of Chicago published results on progress towards more sustainable polymers through a combination of machine learning and regular modeling. They tested almost 2000 hypothetical polymers (would not be possible in real life) computationally and trained an AI model to predict the properties of a polymer. The AI model then generated a list of polymer sequences that satisfied the properties. 


Thanks to AI, companies in industrial biotechnology can now design polymers with targeted purposes like replacing polymers used in aerospace or those in biomedical devices. But not all solutions rely on our Algorithmic friend. The University of Pennsylvania recently reported a biotechnology innovation that will “break down plastic and feed the fish.” Two birds with one stone? Sounds like it! The BioCellation team at University of Pennsylvania, lead by Miranda Wang, created a genetically modified bacteria that can break down plastics in a non toxic way, inspired by studies that have shown that carcinogen can be created by mechanical recycling of plastic. BioCellation’s solution avoids this and in fact, because of the chemistry that happens in the cell, the resulting cell protein can actually be used to feed fish. While this solution doesn’t use AI, I still had to include it because it’s a commendable application of biotech towards plastic pollution. In fact, this leads into the concept of combining genetic engineering and AI in the use of biotechnology. NYU recently reported in January about creating an AI program that quickly designs customizable proteins to treat diseases by turning genes on and off. I was thinking about how to combine those two, like the example above, and apply it to plastic pollution! Overall, plastic pollution is an ongoing problem and using the technologies of today, we can mitigate the effects.


Final Thoughts

This article was inspired from recent conversations with my family about the appreciation of Singapore for keeping their nation clean with certain laws. I then compared their country to countries like the U.S, China, India, etc. through Google Photos and there is a stark difference. Most of the trash contamination was from plastic and it’s the most harmful of the trash wastage. In my AP Language and Composition class, we had an environment unit where we analyzed various environmental graphics. For example, the graphic shown below, a school of fish is replaced with a school of trash which is an interesting take on the matter. We also watched videos on possible solutions, such as biodegradable utensils, terra planters, seabins, etc. Of course, I also started to get interested in biotech and how it can be used in the real world, hence the nature of this article. I hope this post gets people thinking a bit more about littering, trash, and just the environment in general and how biotechnology can be the leading solution to these problems! 


Plastic trash in the ocean
[Sourced from Greenpeace]