Assembling nature's building blocks for novel bioproducts

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research and Innovation Staff Exchange

Led by Tor Vergata University of Rome

Icon of SDG 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure, icon of SDG 12: Responsible consumption and proaction and SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals

PEPSA-MATE is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research and Innovation Staff Exchange program funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme. The program is international in nature, led by the Tor Vergata University of Rome, with participants situated in Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Australia, Brazil, Cuba and South Africa.

Using nature’s building blocks in commercial and biomedical industries

The purpose of PEPSA-MATE is to create a multidisciplinary team – including early career researchers – to derive novel products from basic proteins (peptides) and sugars (saccharides); ‘nature's building blocks’. The team will be modelling and testing the effects of calculated variations to known structures to create new molecules that can be used in industrial and medical processes, as alternatives to the fossil-fuel derived molecules from which plastics are made.

The work is intended to result in molecules that are useful for both commercial and biomedical applications including manufacturing, healthcare, cosmetics, textiles and electronics where their natural characteristics will enhance their bio-functionality and bio-compatibility.

In the medical sphere for example, the nano-particle industry has experienced ‘technology overshoot’, meaning that while sophisticated molecules and compounds have been created, they have not been degradable and are often not suitable for their intended purposes.

An alternative to fossil fuel-derived medical plastics

It is hoped that new synthesis processes, including the use of ultrasound – rather than, for example organic solvents – will create novel molecules that can be used as sustainable drug-delivery platforms. Due to their unique properties, these particles can be controlled for size, surface characteristics and material, enabling drugs to be delivered to specific tissues or released in a controlled manner. Importantly, because they are derived from natural peptides and saccharides, the resultant molecules are more eco-friendly than conventional fossil fuel-derived plastics.

Close up of a researcher's hands in disposable gloves handling a syringe and plastic tube in a lab
The PEPSA-MATE team is working to create new molecules that can be used in industrial and medical processes as alternatives to the fossil-fuel derived molecules from which plastics are made.

There are numerous ways that these molecules can be built, and each is likely to have unique characteristics. Therefore, collating, and making available the information about each resultant molecule’s potential use to other researchers and industries is an important part of this project.

Aligning with the SDGs

The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research and Innovation Staff Exchange grant program is sensitive to issues of sustainability that are embodied in the SDGs and PEPSA-MATE is consistent with the intent of the SDGS, particularly SDGs 9, 12 and 17. By invoking the sustainability credentials of PEPSA-MATE and its alignment with the principles of the European Green Deal, the investigators were able to demonstrate PEPSA-MATE’s contribution to sustainable technology.

Regarding SDG 9; Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, PEPSA-MATE seeks to support domestic technology development, research and innovation in developing countries, including by ensuring a conducive policy environment for industrial diversification and value addition to commodities.

Regarding SDG 12; Sustainable Production and Consumption, because PEPSA-MATE seeks to replace fossil-fuel derived plastics with more natural compounds, it contributes to the environmentally sound management of chemicals and wastes throughout their life cycle. It also strengthens countries’ scientific and technological capacity to move towards more sustainable patterns of consumption and production.

Regarding SDG 17; Partnerships for the SDGs, because PEPSA-MATE is an international collaboration, it is promoting the development, transfer, dissemination and diffusion of environmentally sound technologies, including in the global south (UNSTATS, 2020).



Portrait of Professor Frank Caruso
Professor Frank Caruso FRS FAA – Group Leader, Nanostructured Interfaces and Materials Science, Group Leader, Ultrasonics & Sonochemistry, Laureate Professor and NHMRC Senior Principal Research Fellow
Portrait of Professor Muthupandian Ashokkumar
Professor Muthupandian Ashokkumar, BSc MSc PhD (Madras) – Deputy Head of School, Chemistry, Assistant Deputy Vice-Chancellor, International