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One Word: Plastics

It’s looking more and more like the first big proof-of-concept for commercial synthetic biology will be in biofuels or so-called white or green chemistry — the production of “clean” organic chemicals and materials with the aid of biotechnology, using the same sort of souped-up fermentation process being tried out for fuels.

The November 26th 2009 print edition of the Economist reports on the work of a group of researchers led by Lee Sang-yup of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, who say they have come up with a better way of making PLA, a biodegradable plastic made from renewable sources, “using the emerging science of synthetic biology.”

PLA is now usually made in two stages; Dr Lee and his colleagues have produced PLA directly, in a one-stage bacterial process, eliminating the difficult and expensive chemical “post processing” step. Their bacterial platform is E. coli, cut with genes of Clostridium propionicum, a species of Pseudomonas [which according to this Time magazine story from 1959, were able to survive in an active nuclear reactor], and two more from Cupriavidus necator. Some of these genes are lab-synthesized versions substituting for wild types that didn’t work well. The novel, synthetic metabolic pathways in the new E. coli spit out the unnatural polymer in quantities that could greatly reduce the cost of making PLA products. Besides food and drink packaging, PLA — the biggest manufacture is agri-giant Cargill — is already used to make some other products, such as medical devices.

Science Daily has more on the research.

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