Metabolix’ field trials investigate bioplastic-producing crops

By Katie Bird

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Dna, Photosynthesis

Field research on tobacco takes Metabolix one step further in its quest to design non-food crops that produce plastic resins for use in cosmetic and food packaging.

The Massachusetts-based company has just completed trials on a genetically modified tobacco plant that produces polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) based polymers.

Through its Telles business unit - created in partnership with Archer Daniels Midland - the company already produces PHAs by fermenting corn sugar with genetically modified bacteria. This material is referred to as Mirel and can be used in personal care and cosmetics packaging, as well as for food and drink packaging and gift cards.

Here, parent company Metabolix, is not using bacteria to ferment the plant sugars to produce the polymers, but is instead modifying the plant itself to produce the polymers in its leaves and stems that can then be extracted.

As the polymers are not produced in the same way, the company will not be using the name Mirel for the extracted PHA; however, the uses of the resin are likely to be the same.

Tobacco as a test crop

Although the tobacco is unlikely to be used as the final PHA-producing crop, as a test plant it allowed the company to plan for future field trials on other non-food crops such as switchgrass, oil seeds crops and sugar cane.

“The experience and knowledge we have gained during our tobacco field trial is laying the groundwork for planning and permitting activities for field trials in bioengineered, non-food oilseed and biomass crops producing PHA,”​ said Dr. Oliver Peoples, Chief Scientific Officer of Metabolix.

Peoples explained that the company’s crop programs, if commercialized, could provide ‘environmentally conscious and economically viable’​ alternatives to petroleum-based products.

The tobacco was engineered to produce PHA polymers at a maximum of 3 to 5 percent of the plant’s biomass, and previous testing on switchgrass yielded PHB (a form of PHA) at 3.72 percent of the dry leaf weight and 1.23 percent of the plant’s dry weight.

According to the company, full scale commercial production would be economical if the percentage of PHA reaches 7.5 percent of the dry weight of the plant.

The company expects to embark on large scale field trials in approximately three years but even at that stage commercialization would be a few years off.

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