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E. coli turns PET into vanillin

First biological system to upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemical.

5th July 2021

Innovation in Textiles
 |  Edinburgh, Scotland


Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have discovered that the common bacteria E. coli can be deployed as a sustainable way to convert post-consumer PET plastic into vanillin, via a series of chemical reactions.

Vanillin is the primary component of extracted vanilla beans and is responsible for the characteristic taste and smell of vanilla. It is widely used in the food and cosmetics industries, as well as the formulation of herbicides, antifoaming agents and cleaning products. Global demand for vanillin is in excess of 37,000 tons annually.

“This is the first example of using a biological system to upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industrial chemical and has very exciting implications for the circular economy,” said Joanna Sadler of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. “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 work, published in Green Chemistry, lays the foundation for further studies to maximise vanillin production towards industrially-relevant levels.

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