By: Huan Song
Ting Lu (BCXT/BSD/CABBI/MME), a professor of bioengineering at The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, received the 2021 Future Insight Prize. Established by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, a leading science and technology company, the Future Insight Prize aims to stimulate innovative solutions to solve some of humanity's greatest problems and to realize dreams for a better tomorrow in the areas of health, nutrition and energy. The prize comes with €1 million ($1.19 million) of research funding to incentivize winners whose work has enabled significant progress towards making this vision a reality.
This year, the theme of the Future Insight Prize is food generation with a target to convert non-edible biomass to edible biomass. Lu shared the prize with Stephen Techtmann, an associate professor of biological sciences at Michigan Technological University. The duo were presented with the prize by Mrs. Anja Karliczek, the Federal Minister of Education and Research of Germany, and Dr. Belén Garijo, the Chair of the Executive Board and CEO of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, during the 2021 Future Insight Days conference. Lu and Techtmann are recognized for their work which uses microbes and chemicals to break down end-of-life plastics and transform them into edible food.
“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 Garijo. “We congratulate Ting Lu and Stephen Techtmann for their promising research, and hope that the Future Insight Prize will help to accelerate their efforts.”
Food is the most essential need for humans. However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there are 690 million people around the world who suffer from hunger. This problem is exacerbated by reductions of arable land, population growth, and threats to food production such as from the COVID-19 pandemic. The other pressing challenge is plastic pollution. Plastics are pervasive in modern society and each year, the world produces 380 million tons of new plastics. The UN Environment Programme published that 79% of all plastic waste is accumulated in the natural environment, which causes serious adverse impacts on the environment, wildlife and human health. By converting plastic waste to edible food, Lu and Techtmann strive to tackle food insecurity and plastic pollution, the two grand challenges of our modern society, simultaneously.
Lu's research at Illinois focuses on microbial synthetic biology. "Combining experimentation with modeling, my lab harnesses engineered gene circuits to program microbial cell functionalities for a variety of novel biotechnological applications, such as food generation in this case," said Lu.
Techtmann is an environmental microbiologist who studies microbial communities in diverse natural environments. His lab studies how complex microbial communities can cooperate to perform functions of industrial interest.
“Our complementary expertise allows us to take plastic waste and turn it into something valuable,” Lu said.
The core of the duo’s technology is to utilize synthetic microbial consortia - a combination of natural and rationally engineered microorganisms - for efficient conversion of waste to readily edible food. In addition, they use synthetic biology approaches to augment probiotics to improve food quality by increasing nutritional contents, improving the resistance to foodborne pathogens, and further adding personalized therapeutic benefits.
“I’m truly honored to receive the prize,” Lu said, “I’m also deeply grateful to Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany for creating such a visionary award and for providing resources and encouragement that allow us to advance the research.”
With the prize, the duo plan to continue their research by enabling a fully biological solution for PET plastic conversion, augmenting the biosafety and health-promoting contents of food and further expanding the technology to additional plastics and non-edible biomass for food generation.
"When I first started my own lab at Illinois, I wanted to work on something that's both intellectually challenging and societally impactful. Food generation is such a topic," said Lu, "As bioengineers, we are called to use science and technology in service of humanity by improving human health and nutrition. It’s a real privilege to use my knowledge and to partner with other researchers to tackle harrowing issues."
Lu has a long-standing interest in food generation. In addition to this waste-to-food project, he has worked on the engineering of probiotic lactic acid bacteria, that are involved in cheese and yogurt fermentation, to reduce foodborne pathogens, increase food storage, and confer therapeutic effects. Lu has also participated in the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) project, an international effort led by professors Stephen Long (BSD/CABBI/GEGC) and Donald Ort (GEGC leader/BSD/CABBI) at the University of Illinois and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, and the UK Government's Department for International Development. The goal of the RIPE project is to increase agricultural production worldwide by improving photosynthesis efficiency, thereby helping to reduce hunger and poverty.
The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is renowned for innovation in food sciences. Established in 1876, the Morrow Plots are the oldest experimental crop field in America and research there was instrumental in gaining knowledge on crop rotation, soil nutrient depletion and the effect of synthetic and natural fertilizers. The IGB, where Lu conducts some of his work, directly overlooks these plots which have been a source of inspiration for him.
In addition to the department of bioengineering and IGB, Lu is affiliated with the Department of Physics, the Center for Biophysics and Quantitative Biology and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
About The Grainger College of Engineering
The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is one of the world's top-ranked engineering institutions, and a globally recognized leader in engineering education, research, and public engagement. With a diverse, tight-knit community of faculty, students and alumni, Grainger Engineering sets the standard for excellence in engineering, driving innovation in the economy and bringing revolutionary ideas to the world. Through powerful research and discovery, our faculty, staff, students and alumni are changing our world and making advances once only dreamed about, including the MRI, LED, ILIAC, Mosaic, YouTube, flexible electronics, electric machinery, miniature batteries, imaging the black hole, and flight on Mars. The world's brightest minds from The Grainger College of Engineering tackle today's toughest challenges. And they are building a better, cooler and safer tomorrow. Visit https://grainger.illinois.edu for more information.
About Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany
Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, a leading science and technology company, operates across healthcare, life science and electronics. Around 58,000 employees work to make a positive difference to millions of people’s lives every day by creating more joyful and sustainable ways to live. From advancing gene editing technologies and discovering unique ways to treat the most challenging diseases to enabling the intelligence of devices – the company is everywhere. In 2020, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, generated sales of € 17.5 billion in 66 countries.
The company holds the global rights to the name and trademark “Merck” internationally. The only exceptions are the United States and Canada, where the business sectors of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany operate as EMD Serono in healthcare, MilliporeSigma in life science, and EMD Electronics. Since its founding in 1668, scientific exploration and responsible entrepreneurship have been key to the company’s technological and scientific advances. To this day, the founding family remains the majority owner of the publicly listed company.
By: Huan Song