Plastics transformed engineering in the past century, but they also transformed the environment in ways that will take millennia to repair. Washington University in St. Louis is leading a new effort to address the grand challenge of developing the next generation of high-performance, sustainably sourced and biodegradable plastics that advance engineering while protecting the environment.

“The task is urgent,” said Marcus Foston, associate professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering in the McKelvey School of Engineering and lead investigator of the multi-institutional project. “We are on track to have more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050, and we need to bring people together to develop the innovations and work force that will reverse this trend while expanding the performance of engineered polymers.”

Foston and his interdisciplinary team have received a five-year, $3.6 million Growing Convergence Research (GCR) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a new class of biologically synthesized, protein-based and biodegradable materials that harness motifs from nature to replace traditional petroleum-derived plastics. The team, which includes researchers from Washington University, Northwestern University, Iowa State University and University of South Florida, brings together a convergence of cross-disciplinary expertise to evolve the plastics economy by developing a platform for the discovery of synthetic biological materials with desired properties, guided by artificial intelligence, biomimetics and the science of the product adoption.   

“We’re not only working to address the challenge of plastic waste and pollution,” Foston said. “We’re asking how we address plastic waste without sacrificing the quality of life afforded by cheap materials integral to almost every end-use product, and how do we get producers and consumers to replace a mature and well-established technology with new technology? Too often, questions about adopting technologies aren’t part of the conversation until the deployment phase.”

Foston will lead a team that includes experts in synthetic biology, machine learning, polymer science, material mechanics and computational material simulation. They will use machine learning aided with material screening and simulation approaches to accelerate the process of finding promising protein sequences that can be used to make biodegradable materials with targeted properties to replace plastics in both high- and low-value applications.

Fuzhong Zhang, professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering at Washington University, brings a unique set of synthetic biology tools to engineer bacteria for materials engineering and manufacturing.

“By reprogramming bacteria, we create many new protein-based polymers with precisely controlled properties,” Zhang said. “The data will be used for computational simulation as well as machine learning to identify better polymers. This grant allows us to work together with experts from multiple fields, dramatically increasing the capability of synthetic biology in materials innovation.”

Integrating different specialties at early basic research stages makes this a truly convergent research project that doesn’t wait to consider the full scope of the problem it aims to solve, said Guy Genin, the Harold and Kathleen Faught Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Washington University.

Genin and Roman Garnett, associate professor of computer science & engineering in the McKelvey School of Engineering, will collaborate with Sinan Keten, the June and Donald Brewer Professor and Associate Chair of Mechanical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University, to develop physics-informed machine learning systems to reduce the parameter space that Foston and Zhang will explore to optimize materials and accelerate discovery. 

The project aims to have transformative translational impact, and therefore also includes experts in mass communication, industrial organization and techno-economic analysis.

“Plastic is stable in the environment. It’s everywhere, including in your body,” Genin said. “How do we handle it as a society? That’s a technical challenge, but we also need to think about barriers to the widespread deployment, adoption and acceptance of innovation. That’s why our team also focuses on techno-economic, supply chain and life-cycle challenges, as well as those challenges posed by macroeconomic, governmental and sociological factors.”

To enable this, technoeconomic lifecycle analysis and strategic communications research will be performed by team members Mark Mba-Wright, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State; Kelly Werder, associate professor in the Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications at University of South Florida; and Stephen P. Ryan, the Myron Northrop Professor of Economics at Washington University’s Olin Business School.

“The challenges of technology adoption are as great as the challenges of technology innovation,” Ryan said. “We know from experience that strategically targeting the right products in the initial adoption can lead to a faster-growing and larger success than uncoordinated or diffuse adoption. We have the right team at WashU to make this happen purposefully.”

In addition to research, the team will work toward developing a workforce pipeline that can innovate at the frontiers of machine learning, synthetic biology and engineering.


The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 165 full-time faculty, 1,420 undergraduate students, 1,614 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society’s greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.

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