Plastica dalle Patate

23 Mar 2009
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A field trial at the University of Rostock is developing methods for assessing the safety of 2nd and 3rd generation GM plants long before they are potentially brought onto the market. One prototype for such plants is a potato that has been genetically modified so that its tubers and leaves produce cyanophycin, which can be used to obtain a biodegradable plastic. Two current biosafety research projects are studying the potential environmental impacts of cyanophycin potatoes.

Cyanophycin is a protein produced by cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and some other bacteria. They use it to store nitrogen, among other things. One component of cyanophycin is polyaspartate, which can be used as a biodegradable plastic. Polyaspartate binds calcium and therefore has potential applications in e.g. detergents as a water softener.

It is possible to produce such biodegradable polymers (biopolymers ) in plants, using the plant as a kind of bioreactor. Plants could therefore act as renewable raw materials supplying substitutes for petroleum-based plastics that are not biodegradable, e.g. acrylic-acid-based polyacrylates.

Polyaspartate can also be obtained through chemical synthesis, but is currently produced only in small quantities. It is more biodegradable than comparable polyacrylates, but not totally biodegradable like the polyaspartate produced in cyanophycin.

Cyanophycin has another valuable component: the amino acid arginine, which improves animal health when added to feed and reduces the level of nitrogen in urine.

As well as producing cyanophycin in plants, it is possible to produce it in bioreactors (fermenters) using biotechnology methods with bacteria or cell cultures. However, this produces genetically modified bacteria like GM E.coli bacteria, instead of cyanobacteria. An advantage of producing cyanophycin in plants instead of in fermenters is that cyanophycin can be produced cheaply as a by-product. Potatoes grown for starch production can be used to produce cyanophycin at the same time. No additional fields would be needed. Years of research

Researchers have been studying the production of cyanophycin in plants for years. In a joint project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV), scientists at the Universities of Rostock, Berlin, Bielefeld and Tbingen have developed cyanophycin potatoes and examined them in detail in the greenhouse.

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