Beyond Recycling: Why Biodegradation Could be a Game-Changer for Plastic Waste – An Interview with Dr. Federica Bertocchini
In a world where plastic pollution is a severe problem, researchers are exploring various methods to tackle this issue. In this blog article, we interview Dr. Federica Bertocchini, a molecular biologist who has dedicated her research to studying the biodegradation of plastic waste. Dr. Bertocchini talks about her discovery of enzymes in the wax moth larvae's saliva that can break down polyethylene, the potential implications of these enzymes for addressing plastic pollution globally, and her startup Plasticentropy. She also shares her experience as a woman in a male-dominated field and provides advice for young researchers and entrepreneurs interested in pursuing similar research sustainability.
Dr. Bertocchini, thank you for taking the time to talk about your research. Before we start with that, please tell me more about your background.
I studied Biology, and then I encountered the field of molecular biology. After obtaining my PhD I specialized in early development of vertebrates. Parallel to that, I was interested in plastic degradation because I've always been very interested in the environment since I was a kid. I stumbled into the waxworm somewhat coincidentally by being a beekeeper. Developmental biology is a brilliant discipline that still fascinates me, but now I focus on insects and plastic degradation.
How did the waxworm change your life?
The discovery of the waxworm fit into a little niche that opened up about a handful of larvae that could degrade polyethylene and polyester. And in my case, we saw the degradation by the waxworm within a few hours! That was amazing. After this discovery, we focused mainly on the waxworm to see what enzymes could do that, and that is how we found the enzymes that could degrade polyethylene. Since this was the first time that a scientific research team has found a natural solution that has proven capable of degrading PE, we have received much attention. I founded a startup focusing on this topic and concentrated my research on these newly discovered proteins. In a way, yes, this discovery changed my life!
Can you talk about the potential implication of the enzymes for addressing plastic pollution globally?
We might manage to produce the enzymes in large quantities and thus biodegrade plastic. At the moment, however, more research is needed to be done. From here, the supposed biotechnological application will take some time. There currently needs to be more methods for degrading polymers like polyethylene, polystyrene, and PET. Recycling does not work effectively because of technical limitations. I know chemical recycling plants are being built, but that is a very energy-intensive process. There is no ideal way right now. Of course, biodegradation is not a all-in-one solution for the global plastic pollution problem, but it would be fitting to introduce biodegradation into managing plastic waste globally! Combining enzymatic degradation and whatever technology is applied to-date to build building blocks would be an excellent first step. Our work with enzymes could change waste management to tackle the problems of plastic recycling.
Earlier, you mentioned your startup Plasticentropy. Can you tell me more about it?
Funding is a tremendous challenge in my research, and my work depends on it. With my colleague Nicolas Dubaut, an experienced entrepreneur, I set up our spinoff business to tackle this problem. We use it to collect funding, which is a crucial step for commercialization in the future. Founding Plasticentropy is a way to secure financing and, at some point, to go on with the R&D of the project.
What are your long-term goals?
Right now, we focus on two essential topics: funding and growing our team. Our long-term goals are optimizing the production and efficiency of the enzymes and applying them on a large scale.
How do you see the role of enzymatic degradation in the broader context of plastic waste management and environmental sustainability?
The improvement of plastic waste management is crucial. Enzymatic degradation could contribute to that, depending on how efficiently it works. For PET, for example, a pilot is in the making, and at some point soon, the enzymatic degradation of PET could enter the market. This could be an excellent addition to the current plastic waste management. We are walking in the right direction, but we need to implement solutions faster because the clock is ticking.
Do you have any advice for young researchers or entrepreneurs interested in pursuing similar research sustainability?
For me, the most important thing is to try to break the schemes and avoid to conform. My experience is that there is an established path, and everybody follows this allegedly perfect path. If you dare to walk differently and follow YOUR way, even if it's just a little trail, you might stumble across accidental discoveries and breakthroughs that will lead you somewhere unexpected!
Can you talk about your experience as a scientist AND a woman in a male-dominated field?
I can only speak about my personal experience in this case. I don't experience evident and direct mistreatment, which I could address. It is rather subtle. Also, it highly depends on the country. As a woman, you are experiencing discrimination in some way, and it is only a sense; I can't truly grasp it. Sometimes men tend not to listen if a woman is talking, or they won't consider that women deserve something. It's frustrating, but unfortunately, the science world is not different than every other aspect of everyday life.
What are your future goals and plans?
I hope to find a place with our spinoff. And, of course, I will go on with my research. First, the optimization of the scaling up of this project and second, to study the worm further: the cause for the worm to have these enzymes in the first place and the effects of the enzyme in the worm. Also, the question of which other animals have this enzyme? There are a lot of plans for my future.
Thank you again for taking the time, Dr. Bertocchini. All the best for you, your research and Plasticentropy!
The discovery of the waxworm larvae's capacity to degrade polyethylene and the subsequent identification of the enzymes responsible for this degradation has opened up a new avenue in the fight against plastic pollution. Dr. Federica Bertocchini's research on plastic-degrading enzymes and her startup, Plasticentropy, offer hope for more efficient and sustainable ways of managing plastic waste. Enzymatic degradation, if successfully implemented on a large scale, could be a game-changer in plastic waste management and contribute significantly to environmental sustainability. As Dr. Bertocchini noted, there is still much work to be done, but her advice to young researchers and entrepreneurs to break the schemes and follow their own path can lead to unexpected discoveries and breakthroughs. With continued research and innovation, it is possible to find solutions to the global problem of plastic pollution.