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posted by hubie on Monday January 29, @02:11PM   Printer-friendly

https://phys.org/news/2024-01-bacteria-plastic-multipurpose-spider-silk.html

Move over Spider-Man: Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a strain of bacteria that can turn plastic waste into a biodegradable spider silk with multiple uses.

Their new study, published in Microbial Cell Factories, marks the first time scientists have used bacteria to transform polyethylene plastic—the kind used in many single-use items—into a high-value protein product.

That product, which the researchers call "bio-inspired spider silk" because of its similarity to the silk spiders use to spin their webs, has applications in textiles, cosmetics, and even medicine.

"Spider silk is nature's Kevlar," said Helen Zha, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and one of the RPI researchers leading the project. "It can be nearly as strong as steel under tension. However, it's six times less dense than steel, so it's very lightweight. As a bioplastic, it's stretchy, tough, nontoxic, and biodegradable."

All those attributes make it a great material for a future where renewable resources and avoidance of persistent plastic pollution are the norm, Zha said.

Polyethylene plastic, found in products such as plastic bags, water bottles, and food packaging, is the biggest contributor to plastic pollution globally and can take upward of 1,000 years to degrade naturally. Only a small portion of polyethylene plastic is recycled, so the bacteria used in the study could help "upcycle" some of the remaining waste.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the bacteria used in the study, can naturally consume polyethylene as a food source. The RPI team tackled the challenge of engineering this bacteria to convert the carbon atoms of polyethylene into a genetically encoded silk protein. Surprisingly, they found that their newly developed bacteria could make the silk protein at a yield rivaling some bacteria strains that are more conventionally used in biomanufacturing.

[...] "What's really exciting about this process is that unlike the way plastics are produced today, our process is low-energy and doesn't require the use of toxic chemicals," Zha said. "The best chemists in the world could not convert polyethylene into spider silk, but these bacteria can. We're really harnessing what nature has developed to do manufacturing for us."

Journal Reference:
Alexander Connor et al, Two-step conversion of polyethylene into recombinant proteins using a microbial platform, Microbial Cell Factories (2023). DOI: 10.1186/s12934-023-02220-0


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  • (Score: 5, Insightful) by Nofsck Ingcloo on Monday January 29, @02:59PM (14 children)

    by Nofsck Ingcloo (5242) on Monday January 29, @02:59PM (#1342285)

    Whenever I read about plastic-eating microbes I wonder whether there is a risk of them eating things before we are done using them.

    --
    1984 was not written as an instruction manual.
    • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Monday January 29, @03:09PM (6 children)

      by JoeMerchant (3937) on Monday January 29, @03:09PM (#1342286)

      I was just contemplating:

      We had the carboniferous era, then came the fungi.

      Now we are in the plasticiferous era, some microbe or another is going to evolve to eat the plastics, and since plastic isn't a living evolving thing (yet) the microbes will probably just consume it all as quickly as they get access to it. Kind of like h. sapiens is doing to fossil fuels.

      --
      🌻🌻 [google.com]
      • (Score: 3, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 29, @03:33PM (5 children)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 29, @03:33PM (#1342292)

        There are already fungi and other stuff that eat plastic (
        https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/sep/28/plastic-eating-bacteria-enzyme-recycling-waste [theguardian.com]
        https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2023/11/17/plastic-eating-bugs-recycling-pollution/ [washingtonpost.com] )

        Plastic that's dry in non humid conditions should be fine, just like untreated wood can last quite long in similar conditions.

        So if this "plastic eating" becomes more widespread, we might have to treat outdoor plastic the way we need to treat outdoor wood. Similar for submerged stuff.

        But can the turtles and other wildlife can evolve/adapt in time to not choke to death on plastic, or start to digest plastic?

        • (Score: 5, Insightful) by acid andy on Monday January 29, @03:52PM (4 children)

          by acid andy (1683) on Monday January 29, @03:52PM (#1342295) Homepage Journal

          But can the turtles and other wildlife can evolve/adapt in time to not choke to death on plastic, or start to digest plastic?

          I can dream of a scenario where the bacteria that eat the plastic become so widespread that the animals eat it in their food and it becomes part of the microbiome of their gut, allowing them to safely digest the plastic. But this is the real world and not many dreams come true.

          --
          If a cat has kittens, does a rat have rittens, a bat bittens and a mat mittens?
          • (Score: 3, Funny) by JoeMerchant on Monday January 29, @04:01PM (2 children)

            by JoeMerchant (3937) on Monday January 29, @04:01PM (#1342297)

            >I can dream of a scenario where the bacteria that eat the plastic become so widespread that the animals eat it in their food and it becomes part of the microbiome of their gut

            Yep, in the infinite number of possible future timelines, I'd guess 1% or more of them include turtle-saving plastic digesting gut bacteria.

            --
            🌻🌻 [google.com]
            • (Score: 2) by gawdonblue on Tuesday January 30, @10:53AM

              by gawdonblue (412) on Tuesday January 30, @10:53AM (#1342379)

              It's plastic-eating-gut-bacteria turtles all the way down.

            • (Score: 2) by acid andy on Friday February 02, @11:27AM

              by acid andy (1683) on Friday February 02, @11:27AM (#1342771) Homepage Journal

              It might be fun to code up a Game of Life style simulation of this and see what happens. Too little plastic, and the bacteria die out, too much and the turtles die before the bacteria can save them, but when enough bacteria are around enough turtles for long enough, the turtles start to digest the plastic.

              --
              If a cat has kittens, does a rat have rittens, a bat bittens and a mat mittens?
          • (Score: 1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 30, @01:37PM

            by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 30, @01:37PM (#1342391)

            For similar reasons the "grey goo" scenario ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gray_goo [wikipedia.org] ) some people feared, is unlikely to happen. Unless someone can somehow make "grey goo" that can get enough energy from every day stuff/scenarios.

            Yes certain things can get digested under certain conditions, but it's not so easy, especially if it's supposed to be done by a self-replicating machine that's made of the same stuff that it digests/eats.

            If it was easy it would have happened already. The current level of "natural grey goo" we have is "fungi". And that can't digest everything, nor digest it that quickly.

            And if the artificial grey goo eats wood and is made of wood derived compounds, it might itself be happily eaten by other organisms like fungi and termites. Competition has been around for a long time.

    • (Score: 4, Insightful) by Freeman on Monday January 29, @03:10PM (2 children)

      by Freeman (732) on Monday January 29, @03:10PM (#1342287) Journal

      My thoughts tend towards the following question. Is it containable and is it safe? We've done a lot of stupid stuff and paid the price for it. Let's be really sure we're not going to screw things up worse than they already are.

      --
      Joshua 1:9 "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee"
      • (Score: 3, Touché) by JoeMerchant on Monday January 29, @05:24PM

        by JoeMerchant (3937) on Monday January 29, @05:24PM (#1342311)

        >We've done a lot of stupid stuff and paid the price for it.

        You're expecting people to learn from history and attempt to do better in the future?

        History says: that doesn't happen nearly as often as it could.

        --
        🌻🌻 [google.com]
      • (Score: 2) by gznork26 on Monday January 29, @05:39PM

        by gznork26 (1159) on Monday January 29, @05:39PM (#1342314) Homepage Journal

        ...or natural selection induces some of them to lean how to eat other synthetic materials. I explored one such possibility in a series of short stories on my blog. In that scenario, bacteria had learned how to eat resin, which is used in a lot of 3-D printing already, as well as being a part of some manufacturing processes. The resulting failures ranged from slowly dissolving plastic hulled boats to weakening joints on bigger structures. (The story series start here if you're curious: https://wordpress.com/post/klurgsheld.wordpress.com/1003 [wordpress.com] )

        --
        Khipu were Turing complete.
    • (Score: 2) by DannyB on Monday January 29, @04:58PM

      by DannyB (5839) Subscriber Badge on Monday January 29, @04:58PM (#1342305) Journal

      Whenever I read about plastic-eating microbes I wonder whether there is a risk of them eating things before we are done using them.

      In ancient times, non-plastic materials were used in the fabrication of adult toys.

      --
      When trying to solve a problem don't ask who suffers from the problem, ask who profits from the problem.
    • (Score: 2) by krishnoid on Monday January 29, @05:07PM

      by krishnoid (1156) on Monday January 29, @05:07PM (#1342307)

      That's ridiculous, this is the future! Why expend effort wondering when you can find someone who's already done it for you [goodreads.com]?

      Maybe better yet, get the audiobook, and listen to it on your nice modern bluetooth headset while getting your walk in. Then you can do multiple things at the same time.

    • (Score: 2) by Username on Monday January 29, @05:44PM

      by Username (4557) on Monday January 29, @05:44PM (#1342315)

      It's fine, places like Wuhan never leak dangerous global contagions.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 29, @06:58PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 29, @06:58PM (#1342318)

      If it was easy, it would have already evolved. Turns out they have to pressure cook the plastic to depolymerize it first, and keep it warm in a flask for days.

  • (Score: 4, Informative) by lonehighway on Monday January 29, @04:43PM (1 child)

    by lonehighway (956) on Monday January 29, @04:43PM (#1342302)

    From Wikipedia:

    P. aeruginosa is a multidrug resistant pathogen recognized for its ubiquity, its intrinsically advanced antibiotic resistance mechanisms, and its association with serious illnesses – hospital-acquired infections such as ventilator-associated pneumonia and various sepsis syndromes. P. aeruginosa is able to selectively inhibit various antibiotics from penetrating its outer membrane - and has high resistance to several antibiotics, according to the World Health Organization P. aeruginosa poses one of the greatest threats to humans in terms of antibiotic resistance.

    • (Score: 1, Touché) by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 29, @05:29PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 29, @05:29PM (#1342312)

      You wouldn't want people attempting to reuse disposable ventilator tubes, would you?

      Promoting the spread of this bacteria not only ensures a continued growth market for disposable ventilator tubes, it also shortens their useful life further boosting monthly sales volumes.

      The longer the infected live, the higher the profits, the more frequently they die the less population pressure on the future... kinda win-win, wouldn't you say?

  • (Score: 2) by krishnoid on Monday January 29, @06:16PM (1 child)

    by krishnoid (1156) on Monday January 29, @06:16PM (#1342317)

    When they tested it [youtu.be] I think it was a little stronger for the weight.

  • (Score: 2) by nostyle on Monday January 29, @07:14PM

    by nostyle (11497) on Monday January 29, @07:14PM (#1342321) Journal

    As one who, like his mom, has sported a plastic aorta for the past fourteen years, this news does make me unnaturally nervous.

    --

    Last things last
    By the grace of the fire and the flames
    You're the face of the future, the blood in my veins, oh ooh
    The blood in my veins, oh ooh
    But they never did, ever lived, ebbing and flowing
    Inhibited, limited
    Till it broke open and rained down
    It rained down, like...

    Pain!
    You made me a, you made me a believer, believer

    -Imagine Dragons, Believer

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Azuma Hazuki on Tuesday January 30, @02:43AM

    by Azuma Hazuki (5086) on Tuesday January 30, @02:43AM (#1342342) Journal

    What should be done is to keep the bacteria contained and harvest the enzyme in question, which is then sent to recycling centers or wherever else it would be useful. The enzyme itself isn't alive and can't reproduce or mutate or break containment and spread.

    --
    I am "that girl" your mother warned you about...
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