Entry for:2020 Queensland Women in STEM Prize
Enzymes are biological catalysts that speed up chemical reactions in every living organism. Many industries apply the use of enzymes as a greener option to chemical. In my research, I’ve developed a formulation for cleaning the “daggy” hides from cattle using an enzymatic alternative to the high pressure hosing of animals. This has huge savings on costs and water usage, and greatly improves animal welfare. The massive versatility of enzymes has allowed me to expand the process into an innovative method for recycling textile wastes. Focusing on wool blends, enzyme application creates a closed-loop option for the textile industry. My work currently focuses on cost-effective production of enzymes for animal feed in a project co-funded by QUT, the Queensland State government, and a Brisbane-based biotech company. Enzymes are used to improve animal nutrition while decreasing the incorporation of adverse compounds in feed and enrichment of soil on farms.
Beef cattle production is a major industry in Australia, and Queensland accounts for 42% of the national herd. As Queensland's largest manufacturing industry, the beef processing sector exported $4.9 billion of meat in 2017-2018. A significant issue that remains for the Australian livestock industry is the effective removal of recalcitrant manure balls– commonly knowns as ‘dags’. Dags must be removed from the hides to reduce meat contamination and damage during leather processing. While this ‘daggy’ problem is more prominent in southern regions of Australia, Queensland cattle are also affected in wetter and muddier regions. In a project funded by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), I’ve developed a method to remove dags from the hides of cattle using a specific type of enzyme called ‘keratinase’. The process targets the interaction between dags and hair, improving current removal methods that require extensive washing over many hours and result in high water use and costs, as well as unwanted stress for animals. This innovation has resulted in patented technology for MLA.
Because keratinases also target the structure of wool, the process has been further developed into an innovative technology for textile waste recycling. Since the 1980s, mass-produced fashion has become faster, cheaper and perceived as disposable. Globally, around 92 million tonnes of textiles go to landfill each year with an estimate of just 15% recycled. In Australia alone, 500,000 tonnes are sent to landfill every year– approximately $140 million worth of clothes discarded. Queensland’s State Government has identified that textile as a waste stream that requires increased action and improvement of recycling performance (The Waste Management and Resource Recovery Strategy). Stimulating the diversion of waste from landfill and increasing recycling rate will transition Queensland towards a circular economy.
Recycling technologies like the one I’ve developed are central to achieve a circular economy that transforms the way products are made, used and recycled, with enormous potential for Queensland towards a zero-waste future. The process separates polyester from polyester/wool blends by using a ‘keratinase’ enzyme that selectively degrades wool fibres without damaging the polyester fibres, in a similar fashion to the dag removal process. Instead of going to landfill, recycled polyester is a high value commodity and can be re-used in textile or other industries. With polyester being incorporated in much of the 80-150 billion items of clothing made each year, adoption of this process could save tonnes of textiles from landfill while bringing business opportunities in Queensland and nationwide.
My most recent work involving enzymes for a greener world is the development of a cost-effective platform that produces enzyme supplements for the animal feed industry. The use of enzymes in feed improves digestibility and feed usage with all feed types. It allows previously unused co-products from agriculture to be used in feed, leading to new revenue streams for Queensland farmers. The project is co-funded by the Queensland Government as part of the Advance Queensland Innovation Partnership program, and has enhanced Queensland’s capability in translating advanced biotechnology products from laboratory research to commercial livestock production.
As part of STEM promotion and engagement, I lead and participate in several activities within the scientific and non-scientific community. In terms of the scientific community, I routinely present talks about my research at local and international meetings and conferences (see Recent presentations in CV). I’m a member of scientific committees including Synthetic Biology Australasia (SBA) and Australia SynBio Challenge/CSIRO as an early-career representative, and a newly developed synthetic biology competition for undergraduate students as the QUT representative. Within my role, I engage with members of the scientific community and promote synthetic biology as an emerging and critical discipline in Australia’s economy (Synthetic Biology in Australia- ACOLA). Within QUT, I’m part of the organising committee for Synthetic Biology Brisbane (SynBioBris), a local node of SBA that brings together the local scientific community, including higher degree students and researchers. The node envisions to engage with the non-scientific community due to the outstanding impact of the discipline in law making, business and our society at large.
I also have strong STEM engagement with industry. During the last 5 years, I have been involved in applied research co-funded by different industries in Australia (Dow Chemical Company, MLA and Bioproton Pty Ltd). As part of this, I routinely communicate and present my research with industry members and promote the importance of research and development for the generation of new technologies.
Outside of the scientific community, I have engaged with STEM promotion activities for high school students. In October 2019, I was part of the team conducting ‘Waste Free World from Monstrous Hybrids’ as part of the STEM camp for schools at QUT. During the week-long program, year 12 students learned about our process for recycling textile waste, conducted activities in the lab, and had to brainstorm a market application for the products obtained in the process. In January 2020, I also gave a presentation on Synthetic Biology and the work at QUT to year 10 students from south-east Queensland as part of the ConocoPhillips Science Experience program. In addition, I have also been invited to give a talk for the general public at the Rotary Club in Logan about the extent of the textile waste problem and our recycling technology. The presentation is scheduled for April this year.
Other promotional activities include media communications of my research. QUT media recently release online news on our textile recycling technology (available at https://www.qut.edu.au/research/article?id=155371). Reports conducted for MLA on dag removal technologies are also available online for farmers and the general public (available at https://www.mla.com.au/).
I’ll continue to participate in these activities throughout my career as part of my strong engagement with STEM promotion to help inspire upcoming generations of Queenslanders, further develop technologies that enhance State industries, and achieve applied outcomes for end-users of Synthetic Biology.