New developments in engineering biology have put two groups of Edinburgh academics at the cutting edge of global efforts to design and build microorganisms that can process petrochemical waste, recycle metals, and decontaminate environments.

Person working in laboratory

The University of Edinburgh is home to over 200 researchers working on synthetic and systems biology – fields that hold out the promise of creating novel, sustainable fixes to our ecological crises. Two research groups have put engineering biology at the centre of a future circular economy, by identifying methods to create new value from industrial and consumer waste.

Removing environmental pollutants using biological organisms

The Horsfall Group uses biotechnology and synthetic biology to design bacteria that can upcyle metals from existing waste streams. Around the world, the impacts of industrial production and consumption have created environments with unacceptably high levels of hazardous metal pollution in soils and water. At the same time, efforts to address the legacy of the Anthropocene by creating sustainable energy technologies and infrastructures is driving new demand for strategic metals. Led by Professor Louise Horsfall, this research group has developed practices to successfully transform the genetic capabilities of bacteria in ways that create a biological rather than chemical method for extracting resources from waste and decontaminating environments.

Finding new value in consumer waste with E.Coli

Researchers in the Wallace Lab are using biochemistry and biotechnology to transform consumer waste flows into chemicals that are currently manufactured with petrochemicals. High profile recent work has included a microbial solution to the challenge of post-consumer PET plastic pollution. Lead researchers Dr Joanna Sadler and Dr Stephen Wallace demonstrated the viability of using engineered E.coli bateria to convert PET plastic waste into vanillin, a flavour compound that has become ubiquitous in the food and cosmetic industries. Until now, most approaches to PET plastic recycling have focused on repurposing monomers to produce second-generation plastics. This work represents the first successful biological upcycling of post-consumer plastic waste into a non plastic product using an engineered microorganism.

The Sustainable Future is Microbial

These successes have established a major new focus for research and development, leveraging engineering biology to address crises of sustainability. These research groups are exploring applications across multiple value chains, and are actively seeking new collaborations with policymakers, researchers, businesses, to achieve social, environmental and economic promise..

Contact Person: Theodora Lola-Luz