Common bacteria can transform plastic into a food additive

Common bacteria can transform plastic into a food additive


Plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental problems of our times. Our oceans already have huge islands of floating plastic. Dealing with it is not easy, but scientists keep trying. Now researchers from the University of Edinburgh used lab engineered E. coli bacteria to transform one of the most common plastics into a vanilla flavouring. Which sounds bizarre, but is very creative.

Plastic pollution is one of the most devastating environmental problems in the world and solving it is not going to be easy. Image credit: Øyvind Holmstad via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a commonly used plastic. It is strong, lightweight and cheap, which is perfect for packaging and all kinds of things. PET is made from non-renewable materials such as oil and gas and is so popular that the juice box on your table is likely made from it or at least lined with it. A huge portion of food packaging contains PED plastic, which makes it a little bit less shocking to learn that approximately 50 million tonnes of PET waste is produced every year. It is possible to recycle PET, but it is cheap as is and even recycled products eventually end up in landfills.

What can we do about it? Well, scientists decided to employ the common bacteria E. coli to break the PET down. They used lab engineered E. coli to essentially transform terephthalic acid, which is derived from PET, to the high value compound vanillin. Vanillin is the primary component of extracted vanilla beans and is actually the flavouring agent which gives that familiar flavour to thousands of different food products. And you read it correctly – via some chemical reactions E. coli bacteria are able to transform building blocks of PET plastic into vanillin for the food industry. Of course, before it is confirmed that vanillin from this process is suitable for human consumption, additional tests will be required.

Scientists believe that development of this biotechnology could boost the circular economy. It would also reduce the plastic pollution and help recuperate some of the economic losses associated with recycling. Joanna Sadler, first author of the study, said: “This is the first example of using a biological system to upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemical and this has very exciting implications for the circular economy. “The results from our research have major implications for the field of plastic sustainability and demonstrate the power of synthetic biology to address real-world challenges.”

We as civilization are trying to move towards a circular economy – we are trying to keep products and materials in use. This should help solve our pollution problem and have economic benefits as well. Scientists will continue working on this idea to see if they can develop an industrial process and whether vanillin they make is actually food-safe. 


Source: University of Edinburgh


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