July 29, 2020 | UCLA, UCSB share $23.7 million grant to study biologically based polymers

Collaboration aims to advance the use of microbes for sustainable production of new plastics


by James Badham and Wayne Lewis

UCLA’s Heather Maynard and Adam Stieg and UC Santa Barbara’s Tal Margalith and Javier Read de Alaniz (left to right) are the project’s executive team. (Tony J. Mastres/UC Santa Barbara)

This article was originally published by UCLA Newsroom

Synthetic polymers — think plastic and its chemical cousins — are among the foundations of modern life. The ubiquity of such petroleum-based materials has everything to do with their combination of strength, flexibility and durability. However, current plastics have an extensive negative impact on the environment, and petroleum deposits are finite.

With those problems in mind, researchers from UCLA and UC Santa Barbara are working to develop new high-performance alternatives to petroleum-based polymers that can be produced sustainably from biological sources. Harnessing nature to make these materials is an enormous undertaking, requiring a dramatic change in how polymers are made.

To support the effort, the National Science Foundation has named UCLA and UCSB partners in a collaboration called BioPACIFIC MIP — for BioPolymers, Automated Cellular Infrastructure, Flow, and Integrated Chemistry: Materials Innovation Platform — and has funded the effort with a five-year, $23.7 million grant. The initiative is part of the NSF Materials Innovation Platforms program, and its scientific methodology reflects the broad goals of the federal government’s Materials Genome Initiative, which aims to develop new materials “twice as fast at a fraction of the cost.”

“It will take both resources and collaboration to realize a future where we can address crucial concerns about environmental sustainability while also producing the materials that society needs,” said Roger Wakimoto, UCLA’s vice chancellor for research. “The NSF’s wonderful support advances this vitally important vision by deepening the connections between the California NanoSystems Institutes at UCLA and UCSB, and combining complementary strengths on both campuses.”

Representatives from the NSF lauded the project’s interdisciplinarity and potential for far-reaching impact.

“NSF is excited to support this new MIP focusing on convergence of materials research and biology on two University of California campuses,” said Linda Sapochak, director of the NSF division of materials research. “The BioPACIFIC MIP is designed to advance fundamental science towards sustainable material development, which is important for society.”

Added Charles Ying, the NSF program director who oversees the foundation’s MIPs, “The MIP uses a new modality of research and education/training inspired by the Materials Genome Initiative, creates a scientific ecosystem that shares knowledge and will welcome users nationwide when it is fully operational.”

The BioPACIFIC MIP leverages the facilities, expertise and experience of UCLA and UCSB across the fields of materials science, biology, chemistry and engineering. The two universities have been partners since 2000 in CNSI, which has headquarters at both campuses and will serve as the center for the collaboration. The project’s executive team is:

  • Director Javier Read de Alaniz, a UCSB professor of chemistry and biochemistry and associate director of CNSI at UCSB.
  • Co-director Heather Maynard, UCLA’s Dr. Myung Ki Hong Professor in Polymer Science and associate director of CNSI at UCLA.
  • Executive director Tal Margalith, executive director of technology at CNSI at UCSB.
  • UCLA site executive director Adam Stieg, associate director of CNSI at UCLA.

The BioPACIFIC MIP’s senior faculty from UCLA are members of the chemistry and biochemistry department in the UCLA College and of the departments of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of bioengineering in the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering.

Supporting innovative programs, facilities and education

The BioPACIFIC MIP includes 13 senior faculty from UCSB and seven from UCLA, supported by seven scientific staff across both campuses. The project also aims to engage a broad swath of students and researchers, not only from the two campuses but nationwide, providing them with the tools, samples, data, software and knowledge to advance investigations into the creation of biobased polymers.

“The CNSIs at UCLA and UCSB were established as two nodes of the same entity,” said Maynard, who is also a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “I see [the BioPACIFIC MIP] as a perfect partnership, because we have complementary characterization tools and complementary expertise, and when we put them together, we can make a user facility that will be unprecedented in the science it will enable and the services it will provide.”

The project is envisioned as a scientific system comprising every aspect of developing biobased polymers: design and discovery, building, testing, and learning, with built-in feedback loops.

“This partnership applies unique strengths at UCLA and UCSB to address a problem with broad societal impact,” said Jeff F. Miller, UCLA’s Fred Kavli Professor of NanoSystems Sciences and the director of the CNSI at UCLA. “The team behind the BioPACIFIC MIP has set an ambitious goal — producing advanced, biologically based plastics — that will benefit from our campus’s excellence in developing new polymers, engineering materials from microbes and implementing cutting-edge analytical techniques.”

One of the aims of the BioPACIFIC MIP is to identify microorganisms that can be used as living bioreactors — like tiny biological factories — to generate the building blocks of new plastics with properties that are superior to existing petroleum-based polymers. Experts in biosynthesis will explore new techniques for inducing yeast, fungi and bacteria to produce these building blocks, seeking to improve efficiency and increase yield, and open up new possibilities for designing biobased plastics. These synthetic biologists will work closely with experts in polymerization technology, the analysis of materials, polymer physics and computer simulation.

“People have been wanting to move toward sustainable, biobased polymer materials, but it’s really challenging to move away from petroleum-based ones, which we already know how to engineer into high-performance materials,” Read de Alaniz said. “The holy grail question is, ‘How do we engineer high-performance biobased materials?’ That hasn’t been identified yet. That is our goal.”

The broad-based skills of the BioPACIFIC MIP’s core faculty will be coupled with an automated high-throughput living bioreactor platform and robotic automation, allowing for the rapid preparation of libraries of biobased polymers. The endeavor also will provide outside researchers with access to the robust facilities at UCLA and UCSB, both of which house state-of-the-art tools for fabricating devices, profiling the characteristics of materials and screening molecules for their biochemical activity.

“Providing outside users with the instruments for discovery and innovation — as well as the guidance they need to use those instruments — is a crucial function of the BioPACIFIC MIP,” Stieg said. “Extending access to newly invented tools and state-of-the-art facilities means extending the opportunities for creativity. We’re excited to see the new ground that will be broken in biobased polymers.”

One other important component of the BioPACIFIC MIP is its plan to prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers in interdisciplinary biomaterials discovery and high-throughput experimentation. A focus on outreach and fellowships will bring graduate students and postdoctoral scholars into BioPACIFIC MIP facilities to receive training and help drive investigations.

The project’s organizers will engage young researchers who represent the diversity seen in California. Fellows will have access to a cluster of educational offerings and mentorship opportunities. A weeklong summer session led by experts from industry, academia and national laboratories will provide guidance to fellows, facility users, and undergraduate and graduate students.