Cleaner Clothes From Worms

Call it a clean case of serendipity. Harold L. Griffin, a chemist at an Agriculture Dept. lab in Peoria was looking for a way to convert straw and other farm waste into fertilizer. He hit upon the idea of using bacteria that live inside marine shipworms. These bugs have enzymes that can break down cellulose in wood and straw and can grab nitrogen from the air and make fertilizer-like substances from it. But the experiments didn't go as planned. Before the enzymes could work, they were destroyed by a protein-degrading enzyme, or protease, also made by the bacteria.

Instead of giving up, Griffin decided this protease would be good for a different purpose--laundry detergent. The shipworm enzyme works tirelessly in hot or cold water to scrub out protein-based stains, such as those left by blood or milk. It even works with bleach. Griffin is now collaborating with four detergent companies to scale up the process he developed for growing the bacteria and isolating the enzyme.

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