With a few genetic tweaks, a type of soil bacteria with an appetite for hydrocarbons shows promise as a biological factory for converting a renewable - but frustratingly untapped - bounty into a replacement for ubiquitous plastics.Lignin,is a complex organic polymer deposited in the cell walls of many plants, making them rigid and woody. The large and complex lignin molecule is notoriously hard to efficiently break into useful constituent pieces. Now researchers at the University of Wisconsin have genetically engineered and used ‘Novosphingobiumaromaticivorans’ to turn lignin into a more valuable commodity.The bacterium, found to be thriving in soil rich in aromatic compounds, is a biological funnel for the aromatics in lignin. It can digest lignin into smaller aromatic hydrocarbons.
The compound performs the same or better than the most common petroleum-based additive to PET polymers. It would be an attractive plastic alternative - one that would break down naturally in the environment.