August 25, 2021
Interview with Dr Laura Navone
Position: Research Fellow
Organisation: Synthetic Biology and Industrial Biotechnology, QUT
One-liner: Tackling real-world waste with enzymes and biotechnology.
Textile waste is a serious environmental issue. Globally, around 90 million tonnes of textiles go to landfill each year and only around 15% is recycled.
How do you explain your work in synthetic biology and industrial biotechnology to others?
STEM Girl Power
In my work I use synthetic biology tools to develop new technologies that address a particular problem or challenge.
Synthetic biology is a discipline that combines engineering principles with biology to design (or re-design) new biological systems. The goal is then to use these novel systems to address problems.
You moved to Australia from Argentina in 2014, how did you find out about the position that you are in?
Grace, Moranbah SHS
While presenting my work at an international conference during my PhD in Argentina, I met a researcher from The University of Queensland (UQ) who was working on a related topic to my project and we started collaborating. When I finished my PhD, I applied for a fellowship from the Australian Government to join his research team at UQ. My application was successful and I moved to Brisbane in 2014. I stayed on working as a Postdoctoral Researcher at UQ for two years on an industry-funded project. In 2016, I applied for a job as a researcher at QUT, where I have been ever since.
Is your research centred around using enzymes for technological developments? Is it mainly for managing industrial textile waste or can you see other applications?
STEM Girl Power
Yes, most of my work focuses on the use of enzymes to develop green technologies. In one of my projects, we are making colourful proteins (called chromoproteins) for custom dyeing fabrics. Chromoproteins are proteins that contain a pigmented prosthetic group that are commonly found in marine species, like jellyfish and corals. Our idea is to use chromoproteins to re-fresh the look of used clothing and keep it away from landfill for longer.
We could add these colourful biological components to our wash cycle and customise the colour of clothing on a daily or weekly basis, helping to extend the life of our clothing. Also, if we use these biological tools for dyeing textiles, we can reduce our environmental impact of dyeing textiles with harsh chemicals.
In another project we are binding antiviral proteins to textiles to create an extra layer of protection against infections. These materials for can then be used to make personal protective equipment like masks.
We also work in other applications that are not related to textiles, like using enzymes for ‘shampooing’ cows as a greener and more animal friendly option than current practices.
Fast fashion and fashion waste is becoming a big concern for conscious buyers. What are the potential pollutants from the process?
STEM Girl Power
Textile waste is a serious environmental issue. Globally, around 90 million tonnes of textiles go to landfill each year and only around 15% is recycled. Textile production requires high volumes of water, energy and chemicals. Dyeing is one of the most polluting aspects of the fashion industry. Chemicals that are used to colour our clothes are usually very toxic and end up reaching and contaminating water streams. These chemicals kill aquatic life and can also reach and pollute drinking water.
What impact do you think a circular economy can have on reducing waste and protecting the environment?
The circular economy can have a huge positive impact on the environment. In Australia alone, we send 500,000 tonnes of textile waste to landfill every year. That’s around $140 million worth of clothes thrown in the bin. Because of this, Queensland’s State Government has identified textile waste as an area requiring rapid action to improve recycling. We need advances in technologies to divert waste from landfill and increase recycling to assist Queensland’s transition towards a circular economy.
Instead of going to landfill, products generated during the recycling process can be re-used in textile or other industries. For example, polyester is incorporated into the billion of pieces of clothing made each year, so adopting recycling processes that target polyester could save tonnes of textiles from landfill, while bringing business opportunities in Queensland.
Are there examples of synthetic biotechnologies that have been commercialised and are helping to reduce environmental impacts?
STEM Girl Power
Yes, one of my favorite examples in the textile world is a company called Bolt Threads. Their description of what they do is “Taking nature as our inspiration, we invent and scale cutting-edge materials that put us on a path towards a more sustainable future”. Bolt Threads has developed several sustainable materials that reduce environmental impact.
Mylo is a sustainable alternative to leather that is made from renewable mycelium (a network of fungal threads). Another material is Mycrosilk, which is spun from the same proteins as a spider’s web, and created using biology, fermentation, and traditional textile production.
Bolt Threads works with companies like Adidas, Lululemon, and Stella McCartney to bring these products to the market. Hopefully they’ll reach us soon!
Another example of synthetic biology reaching the world is the Impossible Burger. The secret of this veggie patty tasting like real meat is the incorporation of leghemoglobin, a soy protein that gives it a ‘bloody’ flavor. Compared to conventional beef production, the Impossible Burger greatly reduces environmental impacts – 87% less water, 96% less land, 89% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and 92% less aquatic pollutants.
Where do you believe the future of science is heading in this field and what potential is there?
Grace, Kirwan SHS, Townsville
We are living in a new industrial revolution – the synthetic biology revolution. Synthetic biology is a discipline that has tremendous potential to change the way we make things. Being inspired by nature to re-design biological systems, offers us a means to rethink how we can transform manufacturing practices and produce materials and chemicals that are superior to current ones. We assess better ways while also improving sustainability outcomes and addressing major environmental issues like climate change at the same time. I believe this is the current and future potential of the science being done in synthetic biology.
Is collaboration the key to synthetic biotechnologies being a solution to industrial waste? Who needs to be involved to develop these solutions?
STEM Girl Power
Yes! Everyone needs to be involved – government, industries, scientists, and society. To move from a traditional ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach to a circular ‘cradle-to-cradle’ design of production, we need to engage all societal sectors. We need to link industries with science while considering community needs. For scientists, we have an important role to fulfill by considering how we can use biology to enable changes in how things are made. This can help industries which can then incorporate sustainable approaches towards a circular economy. Collaboration and good leadership are crucial to bridge the gap between sectors and cooperatively drive society towards understanding and engagement.
Laura is a synthetic biologist specialising in industrial biotechnology. Her work focuses on the design of novel biological tools to address real-world challenges and the use of enzymes for technological developments.
Laura completed her bachelor’s degree in biotechnology and her PhD at the National University of Rosario, Argentina.
In 2014, she moved to Australia to conduct postdoctoral research. Since then, Laura has worked across the interface between science and industry, applying novel enzymes for textile recycling and the generation of value-added products from industrial waste. Currently, she is working on the design of new functionalities in textiles using synthetic biology.
Laura has a passion for improving our industries by changing the way we make things, innovating, designing and building with biology to create impact and driving our planet towards a circular economy. Laura deeply believes that pushing the boundaries of knowledge forward requires collaborative efforts and supportive networks.