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Environmentally-friendly plastics that biodegrade and require less energy to make

Humans have produced roughly 8,300 million metric tons of plastic since the 1950s, the vast majority of which has been thrown out as waste. Only about 9% of that plastic waste has been recycled and 12% has been incinerated, leaving 79% of it to accumulate on our land and oceans, harming the environment, the food chain and, ultimately ourselves. A growing number of “bioplastics” are available on the market today, and are largely made from cellulose, a plant-based polysaccharide material. However, these materials lack the robustness and flexibility of traditional petroleum-based plastics, and require large amounts of land to grow the plants from which the polysaccharides are derived, putting additional strain on the environment and our food supply.

We are developing better alternatives to petrochemical plastics, described below.

Circe: Transforming greenhouse gases into valuable products

The Circe project is using engineered microbes to produce biodegradable plastics from carbon dioxide and hydrogen gases. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The Circe (Circular industries with cellular factories) Institute Project uses engineered microbes to produce polymers that can be used to manufacture a wide variety of petrochemical products with a smaller carbon footprint and minimal environmental impact than either petroleum-based plastics or plant-based bioplastics. Rather than using sugar from acres’ worth of crops as their food source, Circe’s proprietary microbes take in carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen (H2) gases and produce a class of biodegradable fatty acid polymers, which can be used in a wide variety of products ranging from packaging materials to cosmetics to clothing. These polymers are non-toxic and readily degrade in the oceans and on land.

We are currently de-risking the Circe technology, and are seeking industrial partners to assist with commercialization and funding efforts. If interested in learning more, please contact us.


AquaPlastic: Plastic that can be molded, healed, and degraded using water

Aquaplastic is water-soluble plastic inspired by the “biofilms” naturally produced by bacteria, and can be disposed of after use like paper towels or toilet paper. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

AquaPlastic is a novel class of biodegradable plastic produced from engineered microbes that is similar to soybean-based bioplastic. It turns into a jelly upon contact with water, allowing it to be easily molded into any desired shape that hardens when it dries. It can also be used as a protective surface coating, and is being investigated primarily for packaging applications. Its water-solubility could allow it to be disposed of like paper towels or toilet paper, reducing the amount of plastic waste that is currently sent to landfills.

AquaPlastic has been nurtured by Harvard Innovation Lab’s Venture Incubation Program, and it was recently shortlisted as a semifinalist of both the Harvard President’s Innovation Challenge and MIT’s Water Innovation Prize. A manuscript detailing AquaPlastic is currently under revision in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.    

Our AquaPulse technology is currently in development. To learn more about our intellectual property portfolio or licensing opportunities, please contact us.


Shrilk: A degradable bioplastic derived from shrimp shells and silk protein

Shrilk is derived from chitosan, found in shrimp shells, and a silk protein called fibroin that mimics the microarchitecture of insects’ exoskeletons, and rapidly biodegrades into nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Shrilk is a fully degradable bioplastic made using a material called chitosan (found in shrimp shells) and a protein from silk called fibroin that mimics the microarchitecture of insects’ exoskeletons. Shrilk can be used to manufacture objects without the environmental damage caused by conventional synthetic plastics, and it rapidly biodegrades when placed in compost, releasing nitrogen-rich nutrient fertilizer. Because chitosan and fibroin are both used in FDA-approved devices, Shrilk also may be useful for creating implantable foams, films, and scaffolds for surgical closures, wound healing, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine applications.

A three-week time-lapse of a California Blackeye pea plant growing in bioplastic-based soil. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University
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