Bacteria found on seaweed makes for an environmentally-friendly laundry detergent © Getty Images

Bacteria on seaweed makes laundry environmentally friendly

By studying how a seaweed keeps itself clean, researchers discovered an enzyme that breaks down the bond between clothing and difficult-to-remove body soils and odours.

An enzyme made by bacteria living on seaweed is being used to make environmentally friendly laundry detergents.

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Scientists studied how bacteria release themselves from seaweed by using an enzyme called phosphodiesterase, which breaks down the sticky molecules naturally present on its surface.

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Newcastle University experts have developed its potential for use as a new type of natural cleaner which could be used to wash clothes.

They found that the enzyme could work at higher temperatures, but was at its best in lower ones, as in the sea.

The team, led by Professor Grant Burgess in collaboration with Dr Michael Hall, worked with Procter & Gamble (P&G) to show it could work in modern laundry detergents which are designed for lower temperature washes, that are more environmentally friendly.

The team behind the research were led by Dr Mike Hall (left) and Professor Grant Burgess (right) © Newcastle University/PA
The team behind the research were led by Dr Mike Hall (left) and Professor Grant Burgess (right) © Newcastle University/PA

Dr Hall, senior lecturer in organic and biological chemistry, said: “Phosphodiesterases are found everywhere – they are even naturally present on your skin.

“But what was so exciting about this phosphodiesterase was its resilience.

“Most enzymes are quite fragile and are damaged by high temperatures, but this one was able to work in both hot and cold temperatures and still be highly effective.”

Dr Neil Lant, an enzyme specialist for P&G, said: “Improving cleaning in cold water with more environmentally friendly products requires new breakthrough technology.”

The enzyme was discovered by the Newcastle team 10 years ago, when they were researching how to clean ships’ hulls.

Prof Burgess, a marine biotechnology expert, studied how marine organisms like fish, dolphins and seaweed solved this fouling problem.

He said: “Since seaweed was easier to catch, we decided to explore how seaweed can keep itself clean. The key was discovering that some seaweeds are actually covered in bacteria that can release cleaning compounds.”

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“While bacteria have the capacity to produce powerful adhesives to stick themselves to surfaces, they also produce an ‘anti-glue’ – a phosphodiesterase – that can break up sticky molecules,” said Prof Burgess.

“The big surprise was that similar glues are present on dirty clothing where they bind difficult-to-remove body soils and odours to the fabric.

“This bacterial enzyme can break down these glues, and can therefore be used to keep our clothes clean as well, when introduced to laundry detergents.

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“This is a wonderful example of borrowing a cleaning idea from Mother Nature. By studying how a seaweed keeps itself clean, we can now keep our own socks clean and fresh, while at the same time protecting our environment.”

Reader Q&A: How do household cleaning products affect the environment?

Asked by: Amy Rhys-Davies, Cambridge

Even after passing through water treatment plants, small quantities of chemical compounds from cleaning products can find their way into rivers, ponds and lakes and have adverse effects on aquatic life. Phosphates in laundry and dishwasher detergent have a fertilising effect, triggering the widespread growth of algae that saps away the water’s oxygen, reducing biodiversity.

By reducing water tension, surfactants allow other pollutants in water bodies to be absorbed more easily by plants and animals. Many other compounds can be toxic to wildlife, or affect growth and reproduction, for instance by mimicking the effects of hormones in mammals and fish.

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