Technological watch

Scientist at University of Edinburgh Use Bacteria to Upcycle PET Waste into Vanilla Flavouring.

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) – a strong, lightweight plastic is widely used for packaging foods and convenience-sized drinks. Approximately 50 million tonnes of PET waste is produced every year. While PET is extensively recycled, existing processes create products that are less valuable.

Dr Joanna Sadler and Dr Stephen Wallace from the University’s School of Biological Sciences made a remarkable discovery: the common bacteria E. coli can be deployed as a sustainable way to convert post-consumer plastic into vanillin.

Vanillin is the primary component of vanilla bean extract and is responsible for the characteristic taste and smell of vanilla. It is widely used in the food and cosmetics industries, as well as in the formulations of herbicides, antifoaming agents and cleaning products. Global demand for vanillin is growing rapidly and is projected to exceed 59,000 tonnes with a revenue forecast of $734 million by 2025.

The extraordinary transformation uses lab-engineered E. coli to turn terephthalic acid – a molecule derived from PET – into the high-value compound vanillin via a series of chemical reactions. The discovery, which has since been published in the journal Green Chemistry, has very exciting implications for the circular economy.

Dr Joanna Sadler, first author of the paper and a BBSRC Discovery Fellow, said:

"This is the first example of using a fully biological system to degrade and upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemical… 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. "

The ground-breaking research, which was funded by a BBSRC Discovery Fellowship and a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship, lays the foundation for further studies to maximise vanillin production towards industrially relevant levels.

Researchers say that the vanillin produced would be fit for human consumption but further experimental tests are required. It is possible that we could be enjoying vanilla icecream made from PET waste in the near future

Source : - University of Edinburgh

Publication date: 29/09/2023

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This project has received funding from the Bio Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 837761.