Has Colossal Biosciences’ Gestated Startup Breaking Found the Solution to Our Planet’s Plastic Crisis?

Breaking, the plastic degradation startup gestated at Colossal Biosciences, has recently launched a solution for our planet’s overwhelming plastic problem, and it’s just in time for the Earth Day 2024 theme, “Planet vs. Plastic.” This initiative aims to unite the global community with the goal of a 60% reduction in plastic production by 2040. With 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste currently on the planet, Earth Day recognizes the importance of investing in innovative technology to build a plastic-free world, and Breaking’s breakthrough discovery, the plastic-eating microbe known as X-32, is just that.

Miraculously discovered while Sukanya Punthambaker, Breaking’s co-founder and CEO, and Vaskar Gnyawali, Breaking’s chief scientific officer, were working in association with Colossal Biosciences at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, X-32 can degrade polyolefins, polyesters, and polyamides in as little as 22 months, leaving behind only carbon dioxide, water, and biomass. 

“We started this journey and we stumbled upon very interesting and very, very cool breakthroughs and discoveries,” Punthambaker said to the Boston Business Journal. “We decided that the technology should get out of the lab in order for it to have a real-world, big impact.”

Breaking Down Plastic Pollution

With 400 million tons of plastic waste produced each year, plastic pollution persists worldwide, causing detrimental effects on our ecosystems and health. A 2021 study from the journal Science found that 1,557 wildlife species globally have ingested plastic litter, a common cause of intestinal blockage and death. While humans aren’t known to eat plastic wittingly, we’re perhaps no better off, as we ingest an estimated average of 5 grams of microplastics per week — equivalent to the weight of a credit card.

Considering plastics are a known byproduct of the petrochemical industry, it should come as no surprise that they can be incredibly damaging to public health. BPA — found in a variety of everyday plastic items like water bottles, menstrual products, toys, and dinnerware — is a carcinogenic chemical that can be absorbed by fat tissue and increase one’s risks to a list of ailments, from endocrine disruption to breast and prostate cancer, and metabolic diseases.

While many look to recycling as a solution to our current plastic crisis, the truth is that less than 10% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, largely because the process isn’t considered economically viable. This has resulted in millions of tons of plastic waste being exported to Asian countries for recycling, where 80% of it enters the waterways and reaches our oceans.

Incineration — plastic’s other alternative to the landfill — is even worse than recycling, releasing a swarm of harmful pollutants and creating troublesome microplastics in the process. Given its chemical makeup, burning plastic is considered dirtier than burning oil and coal and releases over 2 tons of carbon dioxide per ton incinerated.

Plastic’s undeniable impact on our planet has inspired this year’s Earth Day theme, which calls for a massive decline in plastic production driven by an end to fast fashion and an investment into innovative technology that fosters a plastic-free future. With the discovery of X-32, the Colossal Biosciences-incubated startup may have just the innovative technology Earth Day fans seek. 

“We could not be more thrilled to launch Breaking from stealth from Colossal,” said Breaking co-founder and Colossal Biosciences CEO Ben Lamm in a press release. “The technologies co-developed by the Wyss Institute provide limitless applications to address our planet’s pervasive plastic contamination challenges. Part of our core mission of ecosystem restoration at Colossal can only be achieved with the removal of plastic that plague our ecosystems and negatively impact biodiversity.”

Microbe X-32: Breaking Free From Plastic

The X-32 microbe is a newly discovered microorganism that carries an enzyme enabling it to break down polyolefins, polyesters, and polyamides in its natural state. In lab tests, X-32 has been shown to degrade up to 90% of polyesters and polyolefins in less than 22 months with no pretreatment, sorting, cleaning, or decontamination requirements. By releasing carbon dioxide, water, and biomass as a byproduct, the microbe is significantly cleaner than other alternatives to plastic disposal.

“I’ve spent my career in synthetic biology and protein engineering with the hope of developing something this transformational,” said Punthambaker in a press release. “In the future, our solution will be able to work across terrestrial and marine environments to break down today’s greatest threat to humankind/our existence: the plastic that is choking our world.”

Breaking is currently working on identifying the enzyme behind X-32’s plastic-eating appetite and using synthetic biology to make this enzyme — and X-32 along with it —- faster, more effective, and more efficient, priming the microorganism for widespread distribution. X-32 is expected to have applications across a variety of industries, from improved composting and plastic recycling to ocean and brownfield cleanup, wastewater treatment, and soil decontamination.

“The idea is: Apply this to areas where there can be a commercially viable market,” Kent Wakeford, Breaking’s executive chairman and co-founder, told the Boston Business Journal.

By breaking down polyesters — considered one of the biggest polluters in the fast fashion industry — X-32 is also aiding Earth Day’s 2024 mission to end the nasty impacts of fast fashion. Up to 40% of the fashion industry’s carbon emissions come from producing synthetic fabrics like polyester and washing these fabrics accounts for 35% of all microplastics in the ocean — the largest single source of all ocean microplastic. 

Since synthetic fabrics like polyester take up to 200 years to naturally decompose, X-32, with its ability to almost fully degrade polyester in less than 22 months, presents the world with the ability to break free from the trashed fashions of last season. 

A Breaking Solution for a Plastic-Wrapped Planet

As this year’s Earth Day urges us to commit to a plastic-free future, Breaking and X-32 are bringing us one step closer to that goal. With the company actively working to improve the capabilities of X-32, there’s no telling what lies ahead in terms of this outstanding discovery’s impacts. 

Take it from Jim Kim, Breaking’s lead investor and general partner of Builders VC, who said in a press release, “Breaking is solving one of the biggest problems on our planet. They are using the natural world as inspiration and layering on cutting edge technology to transform how we break down plastics. This is going to be one of the biggest breakthroughs of the decade and I’m excited to be part of it.”