Researchers have found that common bacteria E. coli can be deployed as a sustainable way to convert post-consumer plastic to vanillin, new study finds.
Vanillin is the main component of the extracted vanilla pods and is responsible for the characteristic taste and smell of vanilla.
The transformation could boost the circular economy, which aims to eliminate waste, maintain products and materials used, and have positive impacts for synthetic biology, experts say.
The global plastic crisis has raised an urgent need to develop new methods to recycle polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – the strong, lightweight plastic derived from non-renewable materials such as oil and gas and widely used for packaging food and fruit juices and water.
About 50 million tonnes of PET waste are produced each year, causing serious economic and environmental impacts. Recycling of PET is possible, but existing processes create products that continue to contribute to plastic pollution around the world.
To tackle this problem, scientists at the University of Edinburgh have used E. coli to transform terephthalic acid – a molecule derived from PET – into a high-value compound, vanillin, via a series of chemical reactions.
The team also demonstrated how the technique works by turning a used plastic bottle into vanillin by adding the E. coli to degraded plastic waste.
The researchers say the vanillin produced is fit for human consumption, but more experimental testing is needed.
Vanillin is widely used in the food and cosmetic industries, as well as in the formulation of herbicides, defoamers and cleaning products. Global demand for vanillin exceeded 37,000 tonnes in 2018.
Joanna Sadler, lead author and BBSRC Discovery Fellow of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, said: “This is the first example of using a biological system to recycle plastic waste into a chemical. industry and this has very interesting implications for the circular economy.
“The results of our research have major implications for the field of plastic sustainability and demonstrate the power of synthetic biology to meet real-world challenges. “
Dr Stephen Wallace, Principal Investigator of the study and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Our work challenges the perception that plastic is problematic waste and instead demonstrates its use as a waste. new carbon resource from which high-value products can be obtained. “
Dr Ellis Crawford, Editor-in-Chief of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: “This is a really interesting use of microbial science at the molecular level to improve sustainability and work towards a circular economy. Using microbes to turn plastic waste, which is harmful to the environment, into an important commodity and platform molecule with wide applications in cosmetics and food is a great demonstration of green chemistry. “
The study, published in Green chemistry lays the groundwork for further studies to maximize vanillin production to industrially relevant levels.
The research was funded by a BBSRC Discovery Fellowship and a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship.
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