Trash transformation: Here’s how researchers are turning plastic waste into vanilla flavoring

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Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images
We have two major problems. Vanilla is mostly produced in a narrow set of unstable economies and the supply chains are especially vulnerable. There is massive demand for vanilla flavoring.

The other major problem is plastic bottles. Plastic waste from PET bottles creates a massive environmental hazard, and is purely unsustainable.

What if those bottles could be used as a substrate to produce useful compounds, like vanilla flavoring? Dr. Joanna Sadler asked that exact question and using the tricks of synthetic biology installed the enzymatic steps to convert PET bottles into vanillin, the central compound of vanilla flavoring.

A genetically engineered strain of E. coli efficiently converts trash into treasure, and is a great harbinger for the future of synthetic biology in waste remediation.

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Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Related article:  Talking Biotech: Kevin Folta on fruit breeding—and being the target of anti-GMO activists

Dr. Joanna Sadler is a BBSRC Discover Fellow in Biotechnology. Following on from her undergraduate degree in Chemistry at the University of Bristol, Jo went on to study for an Industrial PhD at GlaxoSmithKline in collaboration with the University of Strathclyde. Jo’s research stems from a desire to develop novel biotechnologies to drive a more sustainable future. Follow Dr. Sadler on Twitter @JoSadler10

A version of this article was originally posted at Talking Biotech and has been reposted here with permission. Talking Biotech can be found on Twitter @talkingbiotech

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