In the perpetual battle against plastic pollution, a groundbreaking discovery from a Harvard laboratory offers a glimmer of hope. Amidst the daunting timeline of plastic decomposition—ranging from centuries to decades—a newly unearthed microbe has emerged as a formidable ally, capable of initiating the breakdown of virtually any type of plastic within a matter of days.

Enter Breaking, a pioneering startup spearheading the translation of this scientific breakthrough into a tangible solution for cleaning up plastic waste. CEO and co-founder Sukanya Punthambaker reflects on the pivotal moment when the discovery transcended the confines of the lab, igniting a mission to harness science and technology for environmental restoration.

The journey began at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, where scientists embarked on a year-long quest of “bio-prospecting” in diverse habitats teeming with plastic waste. Their objective: to uncover organisms naturally evolved to metabolize plastic. Through rigorous sampling and testing, they unearthed a game-changing microbe—dubbed X-32—distinguished by its unprecedented ability to degrade all major types of plastic, dismantling chemical bonds and leaving behind only benign byproducts.

Unlike previous discoveries limited to specific plastic types, X-32 possesses a remarkable versatility, positioning it as a potent weapon in the war against plastic pollution. In its native habitat, X-32 commences plastic breakdown within days, gradually consuming up to 90% of the material in a span of 22 months. However, Breaking’s researchers are not content with natural efficiency alone; they are leveraging genetic engineering to accelerate the process further. Through AI-driven analysis of enzymatic mechanisms, the team aims to optimize X-32’s plastic-degrading capabilities, envisioning a future where degradation occurs within hours.

While initiatives like Carbios focus on recycling, Breaking adopts a distinct approach: elimination. By deploying X-32 in various industrial settings, from composting facilities to wastewater treatment plants, Breaking seeks to eradicate plastic waste at its source. The potential applications are vast, ranging from compost pile inoculation to microplastic removal in wastewater streams. The ultimate ambition? To cleanse natural ecosystems marred by plastic pollution, from riverbanks to agricultural landscapes.

Pilot programs slated for this year will test the efficacy of X-32 across diverse industries, laying the groundwork for large-scale commercialization by 2025. With each stride forward, Breaking heralds a new era of innovation in environmental stewardship, where microbial marvels pave the way towards a cleaner, greener future.

By Impact Lab