Currently, we make about 300 million tons of plastic every year, and the vast majority of it is not recycled. Plastics don’t really break down in the environment, and researchers are looking for ways to tackle the growing problem of plastic waste. Materials made by cells are much more likely to be biodegradable, Joshi says.

“Biology is very good at converting stuff that was useful in one form into another form and reusing all the same raw materials to make something else,” Joshi says. “Anything that you make from a living system is likely going to be more degradable than plastic.”

Joshi and his colleagues are already working on several new materials in their lab, including plastic-like substances created by bacteria.

“Learning from nature has been one part of doing this research,” says Avinash Manjula Basavanna, a postdoctoral researcher who has been focusing on creating bioplastics. “But this is one step ahead of typical biomimicry. We are engineering biology to customize materials to whatever we want.”

The group is also tweaking a biofilm created by E. coli bacteria to have different properties. The bacteria could be used to create a protective layer in the gut of someone with Crohn’s disease or colitis, guiding healing of lesions and inflamed areas.

“In the next 10 years, we will talk about using microbes for producing materials for different applications beyond what we can even imagine right now,” says Anna Duraj-Thatte, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab. “This is just the beginning.”

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