More Plastics From Plants

If you’ve ever walked up to a potted plant, thinking it was real, and then discovered it was – gasp – made of plastic, then you’ve seen the kind of plant that Metabolix researchers dream about.

Recently, Metabolix published a paper describing their latest plant trials and efforts to get plants to, if not actually be entirely made of plastic, grow an industrially useful quantity of polymer inside their cells. In the trial, which used tobacco plants, the researchers upped the level of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA)* in research crop tobacco to levels of up to 9% of the total dry plant weight. PHA levels of up to 17% were found in leaf tissue. The company figures its engineered tobacco plants produce 10 times more PHA bioplastic than in previously published reports.

Photo:Dale Callaham, Central Microscopy Facility, University of Massachusetts in Amherst

The result is probably better described, though, by the photo of a tobacco plant cell chock full of polymer blobs. One has to wonder what the upper limit would be for the percentage of polymer in a plant before it turns into the species more commonly found in the back of a greasy diner.

*Two bits of additional information: Metabolix says PHAs “have a broad range of industrial applications as performance, biodegradable bioplastics and as renewable starting materials for the production of a number of existing specialty and commodity chemicals. As polymers, PHA bioplastics offer excellent performance in use and have the unique ability to biodegrade in a wide range of environments including compost, soil, wetlands, marine and anaerobic digestion facilities.”

And C&EN visited Metabolix last summer, you can read about it here.

Author: Melody Bomgardner

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