Your next tupperware set could be made with bacteria

Want to make some plastic? Take a vat of the common bacteria E. coli and feed it a bunch of sugar. Over a few days, it will secrete a non-natural chemical used to make everything from tupperware to spandex.

All it takes is a little genetic engineering, and the E. coli bacteria who live in your guts can turn into tiny chemical manufacturing plants. Scientists say that the microbes can produce massive quantities of Butanediol (BDO), a chemical used in plastic manufacturing that is usually derived from oil and natural gas. The future of environmentally-friendly plastic will mean that we'd better get comfortable with genetically-engineered bacteria - and fast.

Today in Nature Chemical Biology, a group of chemists from industry and academia explain how they reengineered E. coli to manufacture BDO - and they offer some insights that might help other biochemists turn E. coli into factories for other chemicals.

The authors begin their paper by explaining in rather modest terms the magnitude of what they've done:

1,4-Butanediol (BDO) is an important commodity chemical used to manufacture over 2.5 million tons annually of valuable polymers, and it is currently produced exclusively through feedstocks derived from oil and natural gas. Herein we report what are to our knowledge the first direct biocatalytic routes to BDO from renewable carbohydrate feedstocks, leading to a strain of Escherichia coli capable of producing 18 g l^−1 of this highly reduced, non-natural chemical.

Several years ago, scientists at San Diego company Genomatica (one of whom, Harry Yim, worked on this paper) announced that they were beginning the process of turning E. coli bacteria into BDO production machines. And now they've gotten so far along in the process that they can explain the exact genetic systems needed to make the E. coli spit out this useful chemical as part of their digestive process.

At this point in their experiments, the scientists are able to produce nearly as much BDO as they would need to manufacture and sell it commercially. Don't be surprised when your stretchy pants and tupperware start coming with labels that say "produced by GMO."

Read the whole paper via Nature Chemical Biology