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Plastics made without fossil fuel.

A team of pioneering South Korean scientists has succeededin producing polymers used for everyday plastics through bio engineering, ratherthan through the use of fossil fuel based chemicals. This ground breaking research, which may now allow for the production of environmentally consciousplastics, is published in two papers in the journal Bio technology and Bio engineering to mark the journal's 50th anniversary.

Polymers are molecules found in everyday life in the form of plastics and rubbers. The team, from the prestigious Kaist University and the Korean chemical company LG Chem, led by Professor Sang Yup Lee, focused their research on polylactic acid (PLA), a bio-based polymer which holds the key toproducing plastics through natural and renewable resources.

"The polyesters and other polymers we use everyday aremostly 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 thelimited nature of fossil resources. PLA is considered a good alternative topetroleum based plastics as it is both biodegradable and has a low toxicity tohumans." One-stage process Until now PLA has been produced in a two-step fermentation and chemical process of polymerisation, which is both complex and expensive. Now, through the use of a metabolically engineered strain of E.coli, the teamhas developed a one-stage process which produces polylactic acid and its copolymers through direct fermentation. This makes the renewable production of PLA and lactate-containing copolymers cheaper and more commercially viable.

"By developinga 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 ofefficiently producing unnatural polymers, through a one-step fermentation process."

This combined approach of systems-level metabolic engineering and enzyme engineering now allows for the production of polymer andpolyester-based products through direct microbial fermentation of renewableresources.

"Global warming and other environmental problems are urgingus to develop sustainable processes based on renewable resources," concludedLee. "This new strategy should be generally useful for developing otherengineered organisms capable of producing various unnatural polymers by directfermentation from renewable resources".

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Publication:Gulf Industry
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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