Plants as plants: gene could convert crops to plastics factories

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. Scientists have found a gene that allows plants to package and store materials in their cells a discovery that may open the door to producing new types of plastics from plant materials.

Clint Chapple, professor of biochemistry at Purdue University, and Knut Meyer of DuPont and Co., have cloned a gene from the common laboratory plant Arabadopsis that will allow materials to produce plastics in crops without damaging the plant's health.

A patent application, in which both Purdue and DuPont have rights, has been filed on the use of the gene for the production of monomers. Chapple also received the 2001 Agricultural Researcher Award from the Purdue School of Agriculture for his work.

Currently, petroleum is used to make nearly all plastics; it also is used as a base material or solvent in paints, household and industrial chemicals and in thousands of other applications.

But crop plants such as corn or soybeans hold the potential to create plants that provide the starting materials to make the plastics we already have and to make new plastics with never-before-seen properties, Chapple says.

Plastics are produced by making chains of compounds derived from petroleum. Scientists call these chains polymers, and the individual molecules that form the chain are called monomers.

One reason scientists are interested in making plastics from plants is that plants produce an amazing array of compounds that could be used for monomers in plastics.

We have been historically limited by the number of polymers that we can make from petroleum, Chapple says.

Plants also are much more versatile than petroleum.

Plants are really amazing chemical factories that produce a mind-boggling number of interesting chemicals," Chapple says. "We can exploit that ability by using genomics to identify the genes required to make those compounds and by using biotechnology to insert the genes into crop plants.

Until now, however, the problem has bee

Contact: Steve Tally
Purdue University

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