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A First Step towards Large-Scale Plants to Plastics Engineering

November 9, 2010 - 1:56pm


Brookhaven National Laboratory researches making plastics from plants.

Scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory, in partnership with Dow AgroSciences, have made a significant first step towards industrial-scale production of potential raw materials for making plastics from plant fatty acids. Right now these raw materials come from petroleum or coal-derived synthetic gas. However, thanks to the BNL/Dow team, scientists may be able to produce plastic through a sustainable process based on the energy found in sunlight and carbon dioxide.

This game-changing method builds on Brookhaven biochemist and lead researcher John Shanklin’s longstanding interest in fatty acids, the building blocks for plant oils, and the specific enzymes, or desaturases, which control their production.

The key challenge to developing a method suitable for industrial-scale production was how to optimize the accumulation of particular fatty acids (specifically omega-7 fatty acids) – or rather how to start at less than 2 percent and get to 71 percent.

To do this, Shanklin’s team first identified naturally occurring desaturases, but these only yielded less than 2 percent accumulation of the desired fatty acid. Next, the team engineered a laboratory-derived variant of the enzyme, which increased accumulation to around 14 percent. Finally, the scientists tackled the plant’s metabolic pathways by “down-regulating” the genes that compete for the fatty acid substrate and introducing additional desaturases which capture substrate that had escaped the first desaturase enzyme. The best-engineered line of Arabidopsis, a common laboratory plant, resulted in (you guessed it) 71 percent accumulation.

Watch as BNL biochemist John Shanklin explains the awesome potential for plant oils as a replacement for petrochemicals.