Angela Belcher<span>, PhD</span>

Angela Belcher, PhD

Department of Biological Engineering, Materials Science & Engineering, Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research
/ Awarded in 2017

Spic and Span

Using guided evolution to produce a yeast-based cleaning agent
Premise

Yeast as an environmental cleaning agent

The environmental toll of producing new devices, infrastructure, and energy poses a serious threat to the planet and its inhabitants. “Heavy metal waste generated from mining and burning of fossil fuels has contaminated waters and soils, causing tremendous environmental damage and posing a very real threat to public health,” says Dr. Angela Belcher. She envisions a solution that is scalable, economical, and sustainable: She seeks to evolve simple baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) to produce a safe, on-demand environmental cleaning agent.

Throughout the history of our planet, evolutionary biology has produced intelligent strategies for containing and recycling toxins. Dr. Belcher and her team, led by Ph.D. student George Sun, plan to leverage these natural processes by enhancing yeast with genes selected from plants and archaebacteria that have evolved to demonstrate a natural affinity for specific pollutants. “In this way,” she explains, “we will be creating a yeast ‘stem cell’ that is adaptable and will develop specificity for contaminants in the surrounding environment.” The goal is for baker’s yeast to perform Eco-friendly sequestration, co-precipitation, reduction, and uptake for bioremediation (what the team refers to as “Eco-SCRUB”). The result could be used to clean toxic waste from sources that include mining, manufacturing, agricultural runoff, and chemical disasters.

Challenge

Combatting the by-products of progress

Current bioremediation strategies have numerous drawbacks that make them particularly impractical in the places they are most needed, including developing areas such as China, India, and South America. Dr. Belcher’s solution would present a convenient, cost-effective, and efficient alternative. However, the nations that stand to benefit most from her work exist outside the traditional funding framework. The vision behind the project is vast and far-reaching, and the work is a particularly good fit for the Bose Research Grant Program, as applying this innovative approach could make a major impact on a critical global problem.

We believe that by fine tuning biology’s ability to selectively discriminate between substrates, our work will provide an eco-friendly means to remediate waste that will profoundly impact how we treat and recycle waste in the near future.”

Potential

The power of biology

“Our plan,” Dr. Belcher explains, “is to use the power of biology to address major environmental concerns.” Indeed, Dr. Belcher is no novice when it comes to finding new purposes for natural biological processes: her team has successfully developed solar cells and battery technology based on natural biological agents’ functioning, a process she describes as “getting biology to work with a new toolkit” in order to attack novel problems.

In this case, success would mean the availability of on-demand yeast products that could tackle waste generated from both ongoing production processes and singular major disasters. Dr. Belcher cites examples such as the 2010 BP oil spill, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to explain the potential reach of her project. “By emphasizing this new area of yeast-driven bioremediation,” Dr. Belcher explains, “we hope to attract more students interested in the environment and to revolutionize and positively impact how our world views and treats generated waste.”