Using nature to promote environmental sustainability

The demands of contemporary lifestyles are placing increasing strain on the environment as Earth’s population increases. It is occasionally more detrimental than beneficial for proposed solutions to preserve and advance planetary sustainability. Technologies that take advantage of natural processes, though, might be more effective.

The latest issue of the open access journal PLOS Biology focuses on such technologies and includes a special collection of papers that will be published on March 31. These papers highlight biology-based solutions that could be used to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, do away with non-biodegradable plastics, produce food or energy more sustainably, among other things.

Federica Bertocchini and Clemente Arias of the Spanish Natural Research Council describe recent studies that support the possibility of using insects to degrade plastic waste, specifically polyethylene, in one of the papers. The current practices of incineration and mechanical recycling may be replaced by this insect enzyme as a more environmentally friendly option.

“Plastic biodegradation: the technology isn’t quite there yet, but insect enzymes could be the game changer.”

Federica Bertocchini and Clemente Arias of the Spanish Natural Research Council 

According to Bertocchini, “Plastic biodegradation: the technology is not quite there yet, but insect enzymes may represent the field’s turning point.”.

Sandra Pascoe Ortiz of Universidad del Valle de Atemajac in Mexico examines ongoing efforts to develop fully recyclable bioplastics, a broad category of materials that are either made from renewable sources and may or may not be biodegradable, or are made from fossil sources but are biodegradable. This article is also focused on plastics. According to Pascoe Ortiz, despite their promise, these initiatives fall short of fully resolving the issue of plastic pollution.

From first to fourth-generation biofuels, there is a technological transition. Credit: Dania Awad/TUM (CC-BY 4.0,

Pascoe Ortiz continues, “Plastic pollution is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. There are some materials that can help solve it, but the most important thing is to be aware of the use and disposal we give to various products, regardless of the material.

The problem of carbon dioxide pollution is addressed by Peter Ralph and Mathieu Pernice of the University of Technology Sydney in Australia. They discuss the possibility of using photosynthetic algae to capture carbon dioxide produced as a byproduct of a variety of industrial applications, keeping the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere. The researchers have already worked with a brewery to put this strategy into action.

Ralph continues, “Algae-based carbon capture and manufacture (CCM) has great potential to help mitigate climate change by capturing atmospheric carbon and using it to make durable bioproducts to store carbon. Additionally, CCM has many advantages for industry, including lower chemical process costs and the ability to use advanced manufacturing, which could lead to the conversion of many sectors to climate-positive biomanufacturing.

The current state of the available biofuel technologies is outlined by Thomas Brück’s research team (the Werner Siemens Chair of Synthetic Biotechnology) at the Technical University of Munich in Germany. Advanced biofuels are sustainable “drop-in” substitutes for their fossil counterparts that work in conjunction with other renewable energy sources to reduce or even completely eliminate CO2 emissions. The researchers present a comprehensive list of policy suggestions for the swift global adoption of these technologies.

The TUM AlgaeTech Center has a pilot plant photobioreactor for producing oleaginous algae biomass. Third-generation aviation biofuels are made with lipids extracted from biomass. Credit: Thomas Brück/TUM (CC-BY 4.0,

“Advanced biofuels do not compete with agriculture and can currently be produced using greenhouse gas neutral or even negative processes,” Brück continues. These can support sustainable transportation and energy security, but their widespread industrial adoption and practicality necessitate a sound legal environment as well as financial incentives.”.

These viewpoints, along with the other articles in the collection, could help inform and direct laws and additional environmental initiatives.

More information: Federica Bertocchini et al, Why have we not yet solved the challenge of plastic degradation by biological means?, PLOS Biology (2023). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001979

Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, Are bioplastics the solution to the plastic pollution problem?, PLOS Biology (2023). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3002045

Peter J. Ralph et al, Save the planet with green industries using algae, PLOS Biology (2023). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3002061

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