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€1 million Future Insight Prize 2021 awarded to Ting Lu and Stephen Techtmann for turning plastic into food

Merck announced the winners of this year’s Future Insight Prize. The €1 million prize in the category of “Food Generation” was awarded during the Future Insight Days in Darmstadt, Germany, to Ting Lu, Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, USA, and Stephen Techtmann, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Michigan Technological University, USA. The researchers’ project uses microbes to first degrade plastic waste and then produce protein from that degraded waste.

“The winners of this year’s Future Insight Prize have created a ground-breaking technology with the potential to generate a safe and sustainable source of food while reducing the environmental harms associated with plastic waste and traditional agricultural methods,” said Belén Garijo, Chair of the Executive Board and CEO of Merck. “We congratulate Ting Lu and Stephen Techtmann for their promising research, and hope that the Future Insight Prize will help to accelerate their efforts.”

“In my lab, we focus on microbial synthetic biology, which harnesses engineered gene circuits to program microbial cell functionalities for the purpose of uncovering biological design principles and advancing biotechnological applications,” said Ting Lu.

“Environmental microbes are capable of catalysing a wide array of chemical reactions, many of which may have industrial applications. My lab studies how complex microbial communities can cooperate to perform functions of industrial interest,” said Stephen Techtmann. Both prizewinners thanked Merck for the Future Insight Prize that they were jointly awarded to further their research: “Our joint research will allow us to take the plastic waste we’re generating in the world and turn it into something valuable: food and fuel.”

The two researchers named their project “From Waste to Food: A Generator of Future Food”. It concerns an efficient, economical and versatile technology that converts wastes such as end-of-life plastics into edible foods. These foods contain all the required nutrition, are non-toxic, provide health benefits, and additionally allow for personalization needs. This technology promises to transform waste streams into nutritious food supplements, thus solving the two problems of increasing food scarcity and plastic waste simultaneously. The core of the proposed technology is to harness synthetic microbial consortia – a combination of natural and rationally engineered microorganisms – in order to efficiently convert waste into food. The project will comprise four research goals: proof of concept for direct conversion from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) to protein powder (goal 1), augmentation of biosafety for food and for the environment (goal 2), introduction of nutritional and healthpromoting contents (goal 3), and expansion of the technology to include additional plastics or other types of waste (goal 4). The proposed work will establish a transformative basis for food generation.