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Plastic fantastic from plants

Plants can be used as natural factories for the production of biofriendly plastics. Scientists from Aarhus University have launched a project where they will expand the diversity of products coming off the plant’s production line.

2013.09.25 | Janne Hansen

Barley and other kinds of grain can be used to produce environmentally friendly plastic (Photo: Janne Hansen)

Common agricultural crops such as wheat, barley and maize do not just form the backbones of bread, beer and livestock feed. They can also be used as miniature factories for the production of starch designed for bioplastics production. Now, scientists from Aarhus University will be expanding this concept so the plant can widen its range with new, purpose-built carbohydrates.

Scientists from the University of Copenhagen are leading the three-year project that has been granted 6 million DKK from The Danish Council for Independent Research | Technology and Production. Of this, 1.7 million goes to Aarhus University, which is responsible for the development and screening of suitable plants for the project. The development will, among other things, make use of genetic engineering.

Better for the environment – and cheaper

Plants produce different types of carbohydrate, including starch. Starch can replace petroleum-based plastics and are used for environmentally-friendly bioplastics. This type of production is increasing by 35 per cent per year and has a global market value of 3700 million Danish kroner. The ambition is to expand the production of the new, specialised types of carbohydrate suitable for particular types of plastic.

- Industrial production of bioplastics from starch is time-consuming, costly and environmentally harmful. We will use biotechnological methods to engineer crops that produce starch specifically designed for the production of bioplastics, explains project scientist Kim Hebelstrup from Aarhus University.

Grain from crops such as maize, barley and wheat are some of the main sources of starch on a global scale and are therefore also potential sources for the production of starch-based bioplastics. In the project, scientists from Aarhus University will use barley to develop the new types of carbohydrate.

Barley the builder

In practical terms this will be done by inserting genes from other plants or bacteria into the barley kernel in order to make it produce types of carbohydrate it does not normally produce. This genetic modification intends to change the barley kernel so that it produces designer carbohydrates.

Scientists will also try to paste other types of carbohydrate onto the carbohydrates that the barley plant is already producing – to make a kind of cloak around the naturally starchy grains.

The first phase of the testing will be performed on barley tissue in petri dishes. When promising tissue has been identified, scientists from Aarhus University will concentrate on developing the barley plants that the tissue originated from. The barley plant will become a very specialised factory.

- We have already developed a system whereby we can test individual genes and enzymes instead of having to use the whole plant. This means the process is much faster and more efficient, says Kim Hebelstrup.

- Bioplastics are a potential CO2-neutral alternative to traditional plastics, which are typically created from fossil hydrocarbons. The biodegradability of starch-based bioplastics is moreover significantly better than traditional plastics. Our ambition is therefore that the new methodology can help set up a new kind of plastics production that is both environmentally and climate-friendly.

Further information

Project scientist Kim Hebelstrup
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University, Denmark
kim.hebelstrup@agrsci.dk, +45 8715 8271

Public / media, Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics