Monday, November 23, 2009

New Environmentally Friendly Plastic On the Horizon

A recent win by a team of pioneering South Korean scientists may put the spotlight on good uses of genetic technologies. It seems this group has succeeded in producing the polymers used for everyday plastics through bioengineering, rather than through the use of fossil fuel based chemicals. This groundbreaking research, which may now allow for the production of environmentally conscious plastics, is published in two papers in the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering to mark the journal’s 50th anniversary.

Polymers are molecules found in everyday life in the form of plastics and rubbers, and they originate as products of fossil fuels. The Korean team, from KAIST University and the Korean chemical company LG Chem, led by Professor Sang Yup Lee focused their research on Polylactic Acid (PLA), a bio-based polymer which holds the key to producing plastics through natural and renewable resources.

The head of this lab and author, Dr. Lee, commented “The polyesters and other polymers we use everyday are mostly derived from fossil oils made through the refinery or chemical process. The idea of producing polymers from renewable biomass has attracted much attention due to the increasing concerns of environmental problems and the limited nature of fossil resources. PLA is considered a good alternative to petroleum based plastics as it is both biodegradable and has a low toxicity to humans.”

However, up until now PLA has been produced in a complex and expensive process, which has yielded only a small amount of commercially available bio-degradable plastic, which remains expensive. Now, through the use of a new strain of E.coli bacteria, the team has developed a one-stage process which produces polylactic acid and its copolymers through fermentation, the same kind of process used to make beer. This makes the renewable production of PLA and lactate-containing copolymers cheaper and more commercially viable.

“By developing a strategy which combines metabolic engineering and enzyme engineering, we’ve developed an efficient bio-based one-step production process for PLA and its copolymers,” said Lee. “This new strategy should be generally useful for developing other engineered organisms capable of producing various unnatural polymers by direct fermentation from renewable resources."


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