Rainforest class yields new discoveries

Scott Strobel
Scott Strobel Photo by Yale University.

If Jon Russell ’11 gets his way, the days of dumps are numbered.

Russell is the lead author of a paper accepted for July publication by the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology that he says could be the next step to ending the world’s waste problems. The research, conducted during a trip to the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest in 2008 as part of MB&B 230: “Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory,” reveals that certain organisms found in rainforest fungi carry special properties of biological degradation that could be used to break down plastic efficiently. This marks the first discovery of a biological organism that can break down plastic with such efficiency, Russell said, a finding which could reduce much of the plastic waste in the world’s landfills.

“My goal was to search for fungi that could degrade plastics, so I collected plants that produced latexes with the idea that fungi living within these plants may have previously encountered chemical similar to plastics,” Russell said.

Russell first discovered the plastic-eating enzyme following the class’s return to Yale. While previous research has uncovered enzymes with similar properties, Russell said he thinks that his specimen could contribute significantly to the progress of scientific research in the field of biodegredation.

Existing enzymes usually only perform one of two key tasks in the process of degredation, Russell said: Either they can break down substances without oxygen or without a nonplastic carbon source. These enzymes are thus limited in their ability to degrade plastics. Russell’s enzyme can perform both functions, an ability Russell said points to the practicality of the discovery in landfills where there are limited oxygen and carbon sources.

Russell noted that the discovery never could have been made without molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor Scott Strobel’s vision for a class that actively engages undergraduates in research. In fact, most students in the class found organisms during the 2011 trip that had not been catalogued, Belway said, indicating the importance of the students’ work in the wider scientific community.

“The real beauty of the class is that it allows undergrads to design and carry out their own research project — independent of your previous experience in a lab,” Russell said. “This ownership and capacity for creativity is so incredible and unique; it has the effect of generating enduring enthusiasm for research.”

Zach Belway ’13, who went on the most recent expedition to the Amazon, agreed, noting that he particularly enjoyed the freedom to be creative with their individual projects. Most students on the trip searched for plants that could treat infections or headaches, or other illnesses.

Planned as one of Yale’s few science seminars, the class spends the months before the trip learning how to identify plants, collect samples and go about their research, Beltway said. During spring break the class travels to Ecuador together, visiting different regions of the country and researching in the extremely restricted Yasuni National Forest. Then, after collecting and performing basic tests on organisms in the Amazon, samples are brought back to Yale to be used for research in New Haven the rest of the semester and through the summer.

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