Made to Degrade

Marine microbiologist Alyson Santoro leads a collaboration to develop bioplastics for the marine environment
Sonia Fernandez
Plastic trash floating underwater

Photo Credit: Naja Bertolt Jensen

There’s a lot of plastic in the ocean. Much of it comes from the single-use items that we’re all familiar with, but a growing amount is coming from plastics that are actually made to be used in marine environments, such as instrumentation used for an emerging ocean “Internet of Things.”

“Oceanographic sensors are becoming cheaper and cheaper, and people don’t want to go back into the ocean and get them, so they’re basically disposable,” said UC Santa Barbara marine microbiologist Alyson Santoro, a faculty member in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology (EEMB). These networking devices are used by the “blue economy” — a diverse group of maritime industries including tourism, defense, transportation, fisheries, education and power generation. By enabling rapid data-gathering and communications across the many sectors and communities that use the ocean, monitoring can be enhanced, resources managed more effectively and innovative solutions accelerated.

But that doesn’t resolve the issue of long-lived plastics in the ocean, a problem that Santoro and colleagues are trying to get ahead of. And now, with support from the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator program, the group is poised to tackle that challenge, with results that could change the way future oceangoing materials are made.

“This award will give me the opportunity to work with scientists and engineers I wouldn’t have the chance to work with otherwise, and the rare opportunity to be a student again and participate in the program’s design curriculum, where we’ll learn how to collaborate effectively as a team,” Santoro said. Her group is one of 16 teams selected for the highly competitive 2021 Cohort, Phase 1, Networked Blue Economy track of NSF’s Convergence Accelerator.

“Professor Santoro’s proposal is a visionary approach to tackling the urgent need to understand how to find solutions to plastic pollution through cross-fertilization of ideas between scientists and engineers,” said EEMB chair Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez. “Congratulations to Professor Santoro for pioneering research that could be truly transformative and open opportunities for our students.”

MSI Principal Investigators