SDSM Establishes Cell-Free Manufacturing Lab to Research Development of Biodegradable Materials

“The cell -free expression systems therefore have some advantages at the level of biosecurity and biosafety,”

South Dakota Mines has received a $500,000 National Science Foundation seed grant to establish a cell-free manufacturing lab with the goal of researching the development of biodegradable plastics and other biomaterial precursors.

Mines is the fifth university in the country to establish cell-free research infrastructure, joining MIT, Harvard University, Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The research will be led by Tanvi Govil, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Rajesh Sani, Ph.D, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and David Salem, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Materials and Metallurgical Engineering, are the other two co-principal investigators in the research. 

“South Dakota Mines will be the first amongst the universities to explore this technology for driving innovations towards synthesizing next-gen biopolymers and biomaterial precursors,” Govil says. Biomaterial precursors are the building blocks in making bioplastics and any biologically made material.

In the traditional process of using cellular platforms, unfortunately there are constraints associated with maintaining the cell viability and limitations on the maximum product quantity to nontoxic concentrations, Govil explains. In the cell-free approach, scientists don’t need to keep the cells alive, which means less infrastructure is needed compared to cellular bioprocessing. The cell-free approach also overcomes barriers associated with low microbial yields of intracellular products and minimizes chemical usage in downstream extractions/purifications of microbial products. Ideally it should also reduce costs. “It also gives more flexibility to be used as on-demand biomanufacturing platforms” Govil says.

The cell-free manufacturing approach takes all the expression machinery of the microbes out of the cell and into test tubes or similar in-vitro reactions. “The cell -free expression systems therefore have some advantages at the level of biosecurity and biosafety,” Govil adds.

Govil’s specific research will focus on creating nylon, rubber and Polyether ether Ketone (PEEK) bio-precursors (the ingredients to create a product) which can then be used to develop their bio-derived versions that are biodegradable. “This is a newer approach, an emerging approach,” she says.

Govil’s research will identify the challenges in the cell-free approach and work to alleviate those challenges in order to design, create and manufacture the next generation of bioplastic precursors, biomedicine therapeutics, biofuels and high-end functional precision food previously unattainable through traditional approaches.

“I will be making products … that have the potential to replace the fossil fuel dependent-based plastics,” she says. “Products that would be 100% biodegradable.”

Tanvi Govil, Ph.D, is a research scientist at South Dakota Mines. She’s working on genetically engineering microbes to produce bioplastics.

Credit: SDSM Marketing and Communications

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