KOKOMO, Ind. — An interest in ecology that began in a Japanese middle school leads Hisako Masuda to a career seeking innovative ways to reduce plastics in landfills.
Masuda, assistant professor of biochemistry at Indiana University Kokomo, researches ways to break down a specific type of nylon through bacterial means.
“We’re applying science to solve an environmental problem,” she said. “If we put items made with this nylon in a landfill, they last forever. We are looking at organic ways to make the nylon more flexible, and for a specific bacteria that can then attach to it and degrade it, without creating harmful byproducts.”
Masuda works with nylon 11, often found in items such as backpacks, pantyhose, bags, and chemical storage containers, which are made to be “flexible, but durable,” she said.
“Its strength in terms of purposeful use makes it difficult for degradation when you are done using it,” she said. “It doesn’t degrade easily in a landfill, and burning it is harmful to the environment. We are looking for a better way.”
Her goal is to find fast-growing bacteria that develop quickly, using nylon as its source. She and her student research assistants also are looking for an organic enzyme solution to make the nylon more flexible, which would allow the bacteria to attach and flourish.
Last semester, they found a bacteria that seems to do the job.
“So far, no one else has found bacteria that will degrade nylon,” said Masuda. “We will still have to prove it. There’s more work to do, but we’re pretty confident this will do it.”
Even then, the work is not done. Once they determine how to break down the nylon so it can be degraded, and find the bacteria to degrade it, they have to see what kind of byproducts it produces.
Then, they will work to discover what specific gene in the bacteria is necessary to accomplish their goal.
Masuda said while this process will only be tested on one specific type of nylon, she believes it could be applied to other plastics.
“If we can understand the process of how to degrade nylon 11, we can apply that to another kind of plastic,” she said.
She began working on a similar project while earning her Ph.D. at Rutgers University, but her interest in environmental sciences goes back to her middle school years in Japan.
“Japan has a lot of environmental issues,” she said. “Our middle school teacher taught us about recycling, and the impact of dumping garbage in the ocean. I think that’s when my interest started.”
She includes undergraduate students in her research, both to give her new insights, and to enrich their academic experience.
“They give me different ideas and perspectives I didn’t think about before,” she said. “I want them to gain the same kinds of experiences at IU Kokomo that I had as a student.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.