Scientists have extracted an enzyme made by bacteria living on seaweed to create environmentally friendly laundry detergents.
The scientists, based at Newcastle University, studied how bacteria release themselves from seaweed by using the novel phosphodiesterase enzyme, which breaks down the sticky molecules naturally present on its surface.
The experts then developed the enzyme’s potential for use as a new type of natural cleaner which could be used to wash clothes. They found that while the enzyme was effective at higher temperatures, it performed best in lower temperatures, 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 how the enzyme could work in modern laundry detergents, which are designed for lower temperature washes that are more environmentally friendly.
“Phosphodiesterases are found everywhere – they are even naturally present on your skin. What was so exciting about this phosphodiesterase was its resilience,” said Dr Hall, a senior lecturer in Organic and Biological Chemistry. “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 team at the university when they were researching how to clean the hulls of ships. Professor Burgess, a marine biotechnology expert, studied how marine organisms such as fish, dolphins and seaweed solved this fouling problem.
“Since seaweed was easier to catch, we decided to explore how seaweed can keep itself clean,” he explained. “The key was discovering that some seaweeds are actually covered in bacteria that can release cleaning compounds.”
He added that 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.
“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.”
Burgess described this as a “wonderful example of borrowing a cleaning idea from Mother Nature”, adding that the study of seaweed can enable us to keep our own clothes clean and fresh, while at the same time protecting our environment.