Turning the Tide on Plastic Waste

Hisako Masuda, wearing a white lab coat, stands in a chemistry lab behind a large, shiny black work table outfitted with silver instruments.
Hisako Masuda, assistant professor of biochemistry at IU Kokomo, wants to find a way to naturally break down plastics in our waterways. Photo courtesy of IU Kokomo.

A scoop of dirt from a farm in the small Indiana town of Rossville may contain some of the answers to our world’s plastic problem.

In 2014, Ben Hufford, a biology major with his sights set on medical school, gathered a soil sample from his family’s land. Now it’s been turned into a bacterial solution that’s being monitored in a lab on the IU Kokomo campus. It’s all part of an IU Kokomo professor’s efforts to find a natural way to break down nylon, a resilient type of plastic that’s used in everything from car parts to backpacks.

Finding a way to break down this durable material could unlock the potential for degrading other plastics, which present a growing concern for our environment.

“I wouldn’t say my bacteria is going to take care of all plastics,” says Dr. Hisako Masuda, the assistant professor of biochemistry who is leading the research. “But if we can understand the process of how nylon can be degraded, we can apply the same idea to different types of plastics in the future.”

Why is breaking down plastic—in a way that poses as little harm to the environment as possible—so important?

Space is the first issue. There’s a finite amount of land where we can put plastic once it’s thrown out. The durability of plastic is the second big concern. At this point, plastic is not biodegradable, so it never really goes away. It simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.

Many of these pieces end up in our waterways and eventually oceans, combining into trash heaps of epic proportions, like that infamous swirling mass of junk known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This accumulation of plastic in the ocean not only harms marine life, but also threatens our food supply.

It’s high stakes like these that keep Masuda and her team motivated during the long process of turning research into actionable science.

Kortany Baker, wearing a white lab coat and blue rubber gloves, uses scientific equipment to test bacterial solutions. Hisako Masuda, also in a white lab coat, oversees.
Kortany Baker, a senior majoring in biochemistry, works in Hisako Masuda’s lab testing how light affects the cellular processes in bacteria. Photo courtesy of IU Kokomo.

Breaking It Down

Nylon is a sturdy material—that’s why we produce so much of it—so first, Masuda’s team had to get the nylon into a state where it could be broken down at all—by heat, for example. Once that state was achieved, they could begin to apply solutions (like the farm-sourced bacteria mentioned earlier). Then, they wait and watch.

Once they’ve successfully found a bacterial solution that breaks down the nylon, they’ll have to do even more digging to see which gene of potentially thousands in the bacteria is actually doing the work. At that stage, they’ll be closer to opening the door to broader applicability.

Kortany Baker, a biochemistry major, is supporting Masuda’s research in a different way: testing whether changes in light affect the cellular processes in bacteria. “We’re hoping that an increase in light will make these processes go faster,” Baker says.

These findings could have applications not only in biodegradation, but also in the field of light therapy (also known as phototherapy)—which is already being used today to help clear infections, heal wounds, and more.

“It would be nice if our work could eventually translate into the medical field,” Baker says. “It’s just the very, very beginning of something to look forward to.”

Masuda says students like Baker and Hufford are invaluable to the work being done in her lab. With changes every semester, the students are often in a position to carry on the work of previous students and hand their projects down to the next crop of undergraduates.

“I believe in the importance of the undergraduate research experience,” Masuda says. “I had great mentors during my college years who allowed me to do independent research in their labs. A small institution like IUK allows me to work closely with the students and help them learn more about science than just textbook information.”

Masuda says the Rossville farm sample solution is showing promise, but she’s quick to point out that there’s a long road ahead.

Still, she can’t help but smile as Hufford pulls a sample from the incubator to show the bacteria at work.

Masuda admits: “We’re excited.”

As professor Masuda’s research shows, the breakthroughs of tomorrow begin with steps taken today. To learn how you can support the ideas and innovations of IU students and faculty, visit forall.iu.edu.

This article was originally published in the fall 2015 issue of Imagine magazine.

Written By
Andrea Alumbaugh
A native Hoosier, Andrea Alumbaugh is a graduate of IU (BAJ’08) and a senior writer at the IU Foundation.