Bacteria Enlisted in the production of endlessly recyclable plastics


Plastic, while incredibly useful, poses a significant challenge in terms of sustainability. In light of this, scientists at Berkeley Lab have developed a groundbreaking method of engineering bacteria to produce raw materials that can be transformed into completely recyclable plastics. Although plastic recycling programs aim to be environmentally friendly, the unfortunate reality is that the majority of plastic is either burned or ends up in landfills. In 2019, Berkeley Lab unveiled a novel type of plastic known as polydiketoenamine (PDK), which features bonds between its molecules that can be easily broken down on demand without any loss of quality. Initially, the scientists created PDK using the same petrochemicals utilized in conventional plastic. However, in a new study, they have successfully transitioned to using renewable sources instead.

The team of researchers engineered E. coli, a bacterium, to convert sugars from plants into a molecule called triacetic acid lactone (TAL). This molecule can then be combined with other chemicals to create PDK. The resulting plastic material is highly flexible, durable, and even adhesive, depending on its intended application. Beyond its enhanced sustainability, the team also discovered that the new PDK can withstand higher working temperatures compared to the earlier version, operating at up to 60 °C (140 °F). As a result, the potential applications for this innovative material are significantly expanded.

Currently, the PDK is composed of approximately 80% bio-content. However, the researchers aspire to increase this to 100% in future iterations. Additionally, they plan to focus on further improvements, such as enabling bacteria to convert a broader range of plant sugars and compounds into the required raw materials, while also expediting the conversion process itself.

Corinne Scown, one of the study’s authors, expressed great optimism about the research findings, stating, “Our new results are extremely encouraging. We found that with even modest improvements to the production process, we could soon be making bio-based PDK plastics that are both cheaper and emit less CO2 than those made with fossil fuels.”

This groundbreaking development in plastic production offers a glimpse into a future where sustainable plastics are not only possible but also economically viable. By harnessing the capabilities of bacteria, scientists can effectively create a circular economy for plastic, reducing the need for virgin materials and minimizing waste. With further advancements and refinements, the potential environmental impact of traditional plastic manufacturing could be diminished significantly. Ultimately, this research represents a crucial step forward in the pursuit of a more sustainable and eco-friendly future.


  1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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