Microbial synthesis of vanillin from waste poly(ethylene terephthalate)†
Poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET) is an abundant and extremely useful material, with widespread applications across society. However, there is an urgent need to develop technologies to valorise post-consumer PET waste to tackle plastic pollution and move towards a circular economy. Whilst PET degradation and recycling technologies have been reported, examples focus on repurposing the resultant monomers to produce more PET or other second-generation materials. Herein, we report a novel pathway in engineered Escherichia coli for the direct upcycling of PET derived monomer terephthalic acid into the value-added small molecule vanillin, a flavour compound ubiquitous in the food and cosmetic industries, and an important bulk chemical. After process optimisation, 79% conversion to vanillin from TA was achieved, a 157-fold improvement over our initial conditions. Parameters such as temperature, cell permeabilisation and in situ product removal were key to maximising vanillin titres. Finally, we demonstrate the conversion of post-consumer PET from a plastic bottle into vanillin by coupling the pathway with enzyme-catalysed PET hydrolysis. This work demonstrates the first biological upcycling of post-consumer plastic waste into vanillin using an engineered microorganism.