Petroleum stands at the base of every plastic we usually find on today’s market. Polymers are everywhere, and if petroleum resources are about to go scarce with time, it’s a good idea to replace it with other renewable and biodegradable material that we could use just as well as we use petroleum today.
A team of South Korean scientists from LG Chem have produced polymers through bioengineering. Professor Sang Yup Lee and his team studied the Polylactic Acid (PLA), a biological polymer that is the key to manufacturing bio-plastics.
“The polyesters and other polymers we use everyday are mostly derived from fossil oils made through the refinery or chemical process,” said Lee. “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.”
PLA has been produced through a two-step fermentation and chemical process of polymerization until now. These two expensive and complex process have kept it from emerging into the market freely, since it was easier to use fossil-based materials to make plastics. By using a metabolically engineered strain of E.coli, Lee’s team developed a single stage process, that produces the PLA and its copolymers through direct fermentation. Not only is the plastic cheaper, but it can also be manufactured faster.
“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 means that a developed E. coli strain is now capable of efficiently producing unnatural polymers, through a one-step fermentation process.”
Protecting the environment does not only mean changing the way our cars run, but also changing what we leave behind when we consume the products we buy. The endless and huge garbage disposals around the world, for which there generally viable solutions don’t exist, are a proof that bio-plastics will be an evolving science – just like ordinary plastics evolved a few decades ago.