Aquaplastic derived from E. coli confronts the plastic waste crisis? Made from gut bacteria, this genetically engineered biodegradable material completely dissolves in 45 days

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House made of aquaplastic. Credit: Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University
House made of aquaplastic. Credit: Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Using genetically engineered E. coli, scientists from Northeastern University, Harvard, Johns Hopkins and elsewhere say they turned E. coli into a plastic that can be made into plastic film or bendable three-dimensional molds for cones, bowls, tubes or other structures. The plastic substitute almost completely dissolves in 45 days, according to a study published [recently] in Nature Chemical Biology.

They fed the E. coli a nutrient-rich material that enabled it to produce two types of “aquagels,” flexible material they used to make different forms of aquaplastics.

The science behind these aquagels is part of a new field called “engineered living materials,” in which living materials are used to produce new substances. 

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“The investment and potential and the energy cost to get us there to grow things on the timeline and scale of manufacturing that we’re used to seems to be a big hurdle,” [chemistry professor Jeffrey] Moore said.

But, Moore said, he is excited about the potential: “I like the idea that biology has pervaded the planet for the last 3 billion years, and so why not find a solution wrapped up in biology to the synthetic problems we’ve created?”

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