A New Epoch

Jacob Nathan
10 min readJun 2, 2022

tl;dr — At Epoch Biodesign we develop new tools for adapting biology. Our first order of business has been to design enzymes that transform plastic waste into everyday chemicals. Plastic production is choking our planet and spewing out carbon emissions, and today there are no solutions available at any meaningful scale. Biorecycling offers a scalable solution to unlock the true value of plastic waste. Join us in building this future.

[June 2022 – 421.74 ppm CO2]

Plastics have a curious origin:

By the middle of the 19th century, as the industrial revolution steamed on and goods were mass-produced for a growing middle class, many animal-derived products became harder to find and increasingly expensive. Elephants faced extinction as a result of demand for ivory to be made into piano keys and billiard balls, and turtles faced a similar fate as their shells were harvested to produce hair combs.

Plastics weren’t always the turtle-killing culprit they are today. In fact, the first plastic, Parkesine, was invented as a cheap alternative to ivory and turtle shells*. It is fittingly ironic that what was once a nature-saving material has become such an environmental pariah.

Parkesine and its descendants proved to be popular on a scale that is hard to fathom: we make a lot of this stuff, 460 million tonnes to be exact — this is set to explode in the coming years*,*. Pumping oil and gas out of the earth’s crust and refining it into plastics generates up to 2Gt tons of CO2e per year* and this comes at immense expense and great difficulty*. It doesn’t help that refineries have a tendency to catch fire every now and then*.

We will keep making more. For all of the negatives of plastic, it’s still an incredibly versatile material that enables everything from transporting sterilized medical equipment to extending the shelflife of the foods that feed billions. Much of the increased production to meet demand will come from developing, coal-based economies, substantially increasing emissions*.

It doesn’t end there. Currently, we don’t really know what to do with the material once we’re done using it. Recycling is mostly a fig leaf. The vast majority of plastic waste we simply burn, toss into a landfill, or most worryingly, dump into rivers and oceans*. It ends up everywhere from the stomachs of deep-sea fish to the lungs of young children*. This is not just an environmental and health calamity. We are also wasting all the value stored in its carbon, the very element our modern world is built on.

This, ultimately, is the key to solving the plastics conundrum — profitably recovering its value. Decades of bans on plastic bags and straws and costly consumer education campaigns haven’t got us anywhere. Policies have finally gone into effect demanding more recycling, but wishing it into existence won’t make it so. We think biology offers a better way.

This is the first order of business at Epoch. We’ve created new tools to better equip biology to tackle unnatural problems, and we’re using them to engineer enzymes to transform plastics into molecules that we can use as drop-in replacements for fossil-derived products. Same molecule sans the dead dinosaur.

We’re not the first to have this vision, but the biological and computational tools finally exist to bring it to life. Success for us is a planet made better with biology. A world of distributed, equitable, environmentally-friendly manufacturing that is powered by nature and fed by the kind of circular economy that generations of environmentalists have dreamt of.

We’re hiring across a huge range of roles from engineers to biologists and are looking for bold individuals with a ‘get it done’ attitude to join us in developing and scaling our plastic-eating super enzymes.

How did this all start?

Any card-carrying GenZ can recite an endless list of the disastrous effects humans have had on the planet. We all grew up all learning about them in school and in David Attenborough documentaries.

As a teenager, I saw that the natural world was crumbling around us, and, at the time, there was little to no political will to do anything about it. Below voting age, I quickly found myself skipping school and protesting around London for government-backed climate targets. While some of these targets were adopted, the political process left something to be desired.

Jacob protesting at Trafalgar Square, 2019

Thinking about what could be next, I started working on a research project in between lessons and during my lunch breaks.

I’d seen first-hand the amount of plastic in our environment. I’d also realised that if we were ever going to meet our climate targets, we would need to develop and adopt new technologies for producing the many chemicals we use every day. Decarbonisation didn’t just mean solar power, and government policy could not solve this problem alone. Perhaps some of the answers to these unnatural problems sat within nature itself.

Biology is amazing. All living things are made up of cells and all cells are powered by molecular nano-factories called enzymes. These little machines work at breakneck speed with single-atom precision to produce all the molecules we need to make our bodies work. They enable plants to photosynthesise, and yeast to produce alcohol; and they are the most efficient and precise way to complete a chemical reaction. There is no life (let alone beer, cheese, or coffee!) without enzymes.

If there was an enzyme that could turn plastics into the very same molecules we make from oil and gas, we could use it to clean up our waste problem and decarbonise the way we make our chemicals. I began working to identify enzymes that could do exactly this. The initial results were promising, but I quickly realised that without a PhD or a real lab, I was woefully ill-prepared to take the research much further.

That was, of course, until I was introduced to Doug.

Doug is an exceptional scientist. After completing his graduate studies, he spent much of his career looking at new ways to harness renewable resources to build our modern world. Over time, he found himself working in the emerging fields of machine learning and synthetic biology, developing new tools to understand the fundamental rules of nature. During his time as the CEO of BBSRC, Doug had a direct impact on building the UK’s bioeconomy strategy and was even recognised by the Queen with the award of a CBE. In short, he was driving this industry forward before it was cool.

Doug Kell circa. 1988

Doug took a keen interest in what I was working on, and after much discussion, we started building.

One of the challenges, we realised, in bringing bioprocesses to market was in designing better enzymes from the get-go, to enable complex chemical reactions to occur at an industrial scale and at the speed required for economic viability.

Doug had devoted his career to developing enabling tools. Unsurprisingly, he was brimming with ideas on how to take these to the next level to unlock the development of better bioprocesses.

We thought there was a viable use case in directing these capabilities to enzyme design and then harnessing them to create our initial solution for plastic waste.

The company was born.

Creating Natural Solutions

Biology is booming*, and new methods to navigate its incredible complexity have been enabled by the huge declines in the cost of DNA sequencing and synthesis, merged with quantum leaps such as CRISPR gene-editing technology.

Compounding this is the trillion-fold increase in computing power experienced between 1956 and 2015* with continually increasing capabilities. Coupled with new architectures for predictive models, breakthroughs such as DeepMind’s AlphaFold 2* are becoming more and more common.

By combining these enabling technologies into one cohesive discovery and design process, we are developing the first enzymes capable of transforming our problem of plastic waste into the molecules we need for our everyday lives.

Building on Doug’s previous research, we’ve developed new tools to build and screen enzymes at an unprecedented scale. This allows us to generate novel datasets and feed these into the latest learning models to predict new proteins with vastly improved functionality. Working in parallel with the biology, we explore process and reactor design, ensuring that our proteins are designed-for-scale. Transforming plastic is just the first application of this toolset.

With each new protein built, and each epoch trained, our tools become smarter and more effective at navigating biology’s complexity.

Why is there so much plastic?

Quickly after the invention of Parkesine, the field of polymer science exploded. Utilising cheap byproducts from the extraction of natural gas, the production of polyethylene, the most commonly made plastic, increased 244x from 1950 to 2020*. The bulk of this was made into single-use packaging.

To be clear, plastics are important and have contributed massively to the convenience and function of the world we live in today. From saving the elephant to making cars lighter — the positive impact these materials have had is profound. The problem is that we make too much of the stuff, we use it in unnecessary applications, and to date, we’ve been very bad at managing the waste properly.

Very little, if any plastic is truly recycled. In reality, most of the plastic you put in your recycling bin doesn’t even make it to the recycling facility*, and rarely makes it into another bottle*. There are a number of contributing factors, but the key takeaway is that recycling many types of plastic is unprofitable*; and in much of the world, there is little meaningful policy incentive to change this reality.

Today, plastic has a long, complicated journey after curbside pickup, often spanning borders and oceans*. Most of the time, this plastic doesn’t make it into a new bottle* and more often than not ends up in landfill or incineration.

The unfortunate truth is that despite all of the effort and expense of our recycling systems, just 10% of plastics are reprocessed, and only 2% are truly recycled*. New technologies aim to solve this but create more problems. In fact, many of these approaches make just as much CO2 as producing new plastic*, release toxic emissions* and, much like existing systems, are not economical*.

Producing plastic has always been an emissions-intensive process, and with production set to explode driven by huge investment from the Oil & Gas industry*, manufacturing and using plastics could absorb upwards of 10–13% of our remaining carbon budget deemed compatible with 1.5C of warming*.

Why does plastic waste matter?

This stuff is everywhere. Recently, scientists have found plastic on the bottom of the Mariana Trench* and the top of Mt. Everest*. ~32% of our plastic waste is mismanaged with the potential to leak into the environment*, and we just have no idea how much of this reaches the ocean — one of our most important carbon sinks.

Whales sequester an astonishing 33 tons of CO2 throughout their lifetimes*, but an estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are killed by plastic pollution each year*, dramatically impacting the CO2 sequestration potential of these fantastic creatures. Early evidence suggests that the presence of microplastic may have a negative effect on the ability of phytoplankton to photosynthesise*.

Over time, plastic works its way up the food chain and eventually onto our plates*. Plastic from seafood, bottled water and the air we breathe account for the now credit card-worth of plastic we consume every week*.

Whilst the exact effects of plastic on our health are unknown, microplastics have recently been found in human blood samples*, and have already been demonstrated to act as accumulators for toxic compounds and heavy metals*. None of this bodes well for our own health or that of our ecosystems.

Towards an end to plastic waste

At scale, we envision an enzyme-powered process fed by plastic that would otherwise be incinerated or landfilled, capable of producing chemicals that would otherwise be manufactured from fossil carbon. This is fermentation, not incineration.

The result of this is the creation of a profitable end market for more plastic waste, incentivising waste management companies to collect and sort such material.

The advantage of using biology is that our end process requires little energy and emits no CO2. The output molecules impart a substantially reduced CO2 footprint when compared to incumbent alternatives.

These chemicals can be used to produce cleaning products, coatings, adhesives, fertilisers and even new plastics. Additionally, they can also be used as the building blocks to produce alternative circular chemicals.

Importantly, using plastic waste as a resource does not compete for land use, freeing up more space for nature preservation, restoration and carbon capture projects.

What’s next?

Humanity has dug itself a pretty big hole over the last 200 years and ignoring the obvious warning signs, we keep digging. Carbon emissions continue to rise, production of plastic is exploding, and both humans and the natural world are already reeling from the effects.

At Epoch, we are a team of relentless optimists. There are challenges ahead, but we believe there is nothing more important than ensuring a healthy and sustainable future for every inhabitant of our pale blue dot — human or otherwise.

The Anthropocene has been characterised as the epoch of irreversible human-driven change to our planet. CO2 concentrations, radioactive isotopes from nuclear testing and, of course, plastics are now permanently visible in the geological record. The inertia of our current path is substantial.

Despite all of this, we choose to see this new era as one of great promise for humanity. This is our collective moment to choose a future of sustainable abundance, to stand tall in the face of climate change and ensure the preservation and restoration of our shared home.

Epoch Biodesign is on a mission to scale and industrialise biology for a healthy planet. We firmly believe in the power of the most advanced technology on earth, nature, to solve our most pressing environmental challenges.

In order to make this a reality, we are working diligently to develop and scale natural solutions. We’re partnering with leading industry players from all across the plastics and chemical value chains to build a better system using biology. If this sounds like you, let’s talk.

If you want to roll up your sleeves and help build the future, join us.

Jacob Nathan, CEO

[Born at 369.71 ppm CO2]

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Jacob Nathan

Co-Founder & CEO of Epoch Biodesign. On a mission to scale and industrialise biology to solve our most pressing climate challenges.