Scientists Transform Plastic Waste Into Vanilla Flavoring

To tackle the global plastic population, scientists have found a way to convert plastic bottles into vanilla flavoring using genetically engineered bacteria that brew a valuable chemical from waste plastic for the first time.

Joanna Sadler, a biochemist at the University of Edinburgh, says in a statement, “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,” Sadler, who conducted the study and is also its author added.


global plastic pollution

According to the Guardian, upcycling plastic bottles into more lucrative materials could make the recycling process far more appealing and effective as currently, single-use plastics lose ninety-five percent of their value after use. This causes a USD 110 billion (INR 8078400000000) loss to global markets every year and encouraging the better collection and use of such waste is key to tackling the global plastic pollution problem.

About 1 million plastic bottles are sold every minute around the world and just fourteen percent are recycled, reports the Guardian. And even those bottles that are recycled can only be transformed into opaque fibers for clothing or carpets.

Recent research showed bottles are the second most common type of plastic pollution in the oceans, after plastic bags and in 2018, scientists accidentally created a mutant enzyme. This enzyme breaks down plastic bottles, and subsequent work produces a super-enzyme that eats plastic bottles even faster.

Image Acquired Via Unsplash.


Vanillin is the primary component of vanilla bean extract. Researchers are converting plastic into vanilla flavoring using genetically engineered bacteria to meet the demands for it as well as to reduce plastic waste.

This has been published in a new study – Green Chemistry and it found that the process of converting plastic into vanillin produced a mild reaction and generated no hazardous waste. Damian Carrington (Guardian) reports that this marks the first time researchers brewed up a “valuable” chemical compound from plastic waste.

According to the Independent, vanillin, as a lucrative spice, has a market value predicted to reach USD 724.5 million (INR 53362685250.00) by 2025 as the demand for it rapidly increases. In 2018, the global demand for vanillin was about 40,800 tons (37,000 metric tons) as per Live Science. This demand is expected to grow to 65,000 tons (59,000 metric tons) by 2025, according to the study published in the journal Green Chemistry on June 10, 2021.

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Found in various items, including dairy products, soda, herbicides, antifoaming agents, cleaning products, and cosmetics, Vanillin is what gives vanilla its signature sweet aroma and potent flavor, reports Asha C. Gilbert for USA Today. Ordinarily, the chemical compound is obtained through distillation from the extract of vanilla beans. However, it can also be made synthetically as Eighty-five percent of the world’s vanilla is synthesized from fossil fuels, as per the Guardian.

According to Live Science, Vanillin is produced artificially to meet demands that the vanilla bean supply can’t meet and researchers used a novel method to convert plastic waste into vanillin, as a way to both supply vanillin and reduce plastic pollution reports Yasemin Saplakoglu.


How is it possible?

Researchers have already developed mutant enzymes to break down the polyethylene terephthalate polymer used for drinks bottles into its basic units terephthalic acid (TA) and Scientists have now used bugs to convert TA into vanillin, The Guardian reports.

Stephen Wallace, of the University of Edinburgh, said: “Our work challenges the perception of plastic being a problematic waste and instead demonstrates its use as a new carbon resource from which high-value products can be made.”

The team did this by mixing a broth that contained the engineered E. coli and TA at a temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius) for a day, as published in the research reports of the Guardian. They warmed the microbial broth in the same conditions as for brewing beer, Wallace said.

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The mixture converted seventy-nine percent of the TA into vanillin and because both chemical compounds are similar, the microbes could easily transform the acid into vanillin. The engineered bacteria only need to make a few changes to the number of hydrogen and oxygen atoms bonded to the acid’s carbon ring, Live Science reports.

Ellis Crawford, a medicinal chemist, said, “This is a really interesting use of microbial science to improve sustainability.” “Using microbes to turn waste plastics, which are harmful to the environment, into an important commodity and platform molecule with broad applications in cosmetics and food is a beautiful demonstration of green chemistry,” Crawford, an editor at the journal Royal Society of Chemistry, says in a statement.


Going further

The study authors hope to tweak the bacteria to increase the conversion rate further, as Stephen said: “We think we can do that pretty quickly. We have an amazing roboticised DNA assembly facility here.” They are also looking into how they can scale up the process to convert larger amounts of plastic. According to the Guardian, other valuable molecules could also be brewed from TA, such as some used in perfumes.


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