Up until now, scientists have always considered that the only possible way of producing plastic, one of the main materials in our civilization, is through modifying and altering fossil fuels, primarily oil. But now, a team of South Korean scientists has managed to produce the compound for the first time without using any of these polluting fuels. Rather than extracting it from chemicals, they have managed to bioengineer it, proving once and for all that changes can be made to our way of life through innovation.
The achievement does make one wonder how it is that it was not made in one of the countries where the oil companies ruled, such as the United States or Canada. In short, there is no interest in such products in these nations, where the extent of the influence that oil corporations have on governments is difficult to quantify. The South Korean accomplishment also points at the fact that the oil industry is indeed dispensable. Previous studies, done elsewhere, also demonstrated that plastic-like compounds, even more efficient than the actual plastics, could be made of hemp as well.
“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,” Professor Sang Yup Lee, the leader of the new study, explains. The research was done by the KAIST University and the Korean chemical company LG Chem.
Until now, the PLA compound has only been produced via an intricate fermentation and polymerization process, but, currently, the team believes that it may have discovered a cheaper, just-as-effective method of synthesizing it. Now, via the use of metabolically engineered strains of E.coli bacteria, the product can be obtained from a simple, direct fermentation process. “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. This means that a developed E. coli strain is now capable of efficiently producing unnatural polymers, through a one-step fermentation process,” Lee adds.
“Global warming and other environmental problems are urging us to develop sustainable processes based on renewable resources. This new strategy should be generally useful for developing other engineered organisms capable of producing various unnatural polymers by direct fermentation from renewable resources,” the expert concludes.