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The news that the Pacific Ocean is polluted with coffee, or rather, caffeine in general, was pretty baffling. But one research team has developed a solution that may be even stranger than the problem. The team genetically engineered E. coli to be “addicted” to caffeine, and as such the bacteria is able to decontaminate wastewater. In addition, the team believes that these hopped-up bacteria could assist in other applications, such as the bioproduction of some medications.
E. Coli Bacteria image (cc) Eric Erbe via Wikipedia
The researchers, from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Iowa, note caffeine pollution in wastewater has become an increasing problem, not solely from coffee, soda and other caffeine-laden beverages, but from prescription drugs used to treat asthma and other lung diseases. While it might sound like a moderately harmless form of pollution, caffeine can actually prove pretty noxious to plant life, altering the genetic makeup and inhibiting growth of various flora.
By looking at a natural soil bacterium, Pseudomonas putida CBB5, the researchers were able to modify E. coli—which while mostly familiar in the context of food poisoning, also happens to be “easy to handle and grow,” to mimic the diet of the caffeine-friendly soil bacteria. In doing so, the team has created a bacteria that can not only gobble up caffeine residing in wastewater, but that also has the potential to measure the caffeine content of beverages and be used in the bioproduction of some medications.
Additionally, as Mother Nature News points out, the bacteria could be used to purify waste for reuse in energy generation and agriculture. By purifying the byproducts of the coffee industry, grounds which would otherwise prove toxic could “be used for agricultural feedstock of biofuels… the ability to decaffeinate coffee industry byproducts could transform waste into a viable resource.”