Andrew Cowan

Targeting enzymes for plastic degradation

About me

I completed my studies in biochemistry at the University of Glasgow where I developed an interest in researching biological solutions to sustainability/environmental challenges. This mainly stemmed from my time spent on placement in the Environmental Mycology group at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (Leipzig, Germany) where I worked on understanding the biotransformation of persistent pollutants by aquatic species of fungi. Following my time at Glasgow, I continued working with fungi and completed an MPhil at Southampton Solent University where I studied the biodegradation of polymers by wood-rotting species of fungi, together with investigating their associated cytochrome P450 complements in respect to niche specialisation. Prior to starting my PhD at Leeds, I worked for a number of months at a company in Glasgow that developed bacteriophage cocktails to provide novel antimicrobial solutions in the areas of veterinary medicine, human health, and prevention of food spoilage. I knew from the above experience that I wished to pursue a PhD in the field of biochemistry/molecular biology that focused on tackling key environmental issues, therefore I was attracted to the possibility of working on the enzymatic biodegradation of plastics under Dr. Hemsworth and Dr Tomlinson.

My research

The biological recycling of plastic polymers is a novel biotechnology for moving towards a more sustainable circular economy. Several enzymes have been identified which are capable of hydrolysing polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – a plastic commonly used in food/drinks packaging and as a synthetic fibre in the textile industry. As it stands, ‘biorecycling’ for plastic waste management is relatively inefficient and not competitive with current recycling strategies/the production of virgin plastic. Utilising affimer proteins developed at the University of Leeds, my project will focus on employing these small, specific binding proteins as a means of targeting PET hydrolysing enzymes to the polymer substrate for improved degradation.