Scientists Gene-Hack Bacteria to Turn Waste Plastic Into Kevlar-Like Spider Silk

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“We’re really harnessing what nature has developed to do manufacturing for us.”

Now that’s how you upcycle.

In a recent study, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute were able to gene-hack a strain of bacteria to turn wasteful polyethylene plastic into a spider silk-like material as strong as Kevlar — a fascinating way to transform harmful trash into a resilient and versatile biomaterial.

Polyethylene, which is used in single-use plastics like shopping bags and bottles, reigns as the most used plastic in the world; it may not be surprising, then, to know that it’s also one of the world’s biggest pollutants. It can take anywhere from 20 years to nearly a century for polyethylene plastics to decompose, and very little of it ever actually gets recycled. Figuring out what to do to counter its ubiquity is a serious and ongoing problem — and that, excitingly, is where this spider silk discovery from the Rensselaer researchers comes in.

As the scientists explain in their study, published in October in the journal Microbial Cell Factories, they were able to use genomics to create Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a new strain of plastic-munching bacteria integrated with recombinant genes — or new alleles created through a process of breaking-down and piecing-back-together DNA from different critters — for a “spider dragline-inspired silk protein.”

The result? A sustainable process that simultaneously eliminates plastic and creates a strong, protein-packed new material.

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