Scientists find novel polymer to replace petroleum-based plastics

By Michelle Yeomans

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Bacteria Microbiology Polymer

Uyuni salt lake’s water ‘eyes’ store these bacteria
Uyuni salt lake’s water ‘eyes’ store these bacteria
As the quest for natural substitutes to petroleum-based plastics continues, scientists at the Polytechnic University of Catalonidia have discovered a microorganism in South America that produces poly-beta-hydroxybutyrate (PHB), which will come as good news to the cosmetics packaging industry.

The biodegradable compound ‘Bacillus megaterium uyuni S29’ was discovered in Bolivia, the largest continuous salt desert in the world where the researchers from UPC and the Graz University of Technology in Austria say the microorganism is the largest producer of polymer of the genus.

According to Dr Marisol Marqués, microbiologist at UPC; “These are very extreme environments, which facilitate intracellular accumulation of PHB, a reserve material used by bacteria in times when nutrients are scarce.​"

The team has managed to reduce PHB's high molecular weight for the first time, using lipase enzymes, which break up fats, as well as using the biopolymer to form nano- and microspheres loaded with antibiotic to control their spread throughout the organism.

And what makes this biopolymer's thermal properties different from conventional PHBs, is that which makes it easier to process, independently of its application.

The scientists have successfully made the bacillus produce significant quantities of the compound in the laboratory in cultivation conditions similar to those used in industry. The technique is published in the journals 'Food Technology & Biotechnology' and 'Journal of Applied Microbiology'.

However; Marqués says he also recognises that the costs of producing biopolymers are, in general, "still high and not competitive when compared with conventional polymers, although progress is being made in this regard."

Demand for bio-based packaging

As consumer demand for environmentally friendly cosmetics is growing and manufacturers are looking to packaging companies to help them provide eco-friendly solutions, bio-based packaging is increasingly being used as a replacement for petroleum-based plastics.

Experts say the demand is also being driven by anti-pollution legislation and by demand from environmentally conscious consumers and the cosmetics industry appears to be reacting fast to this demand, with the recent release of a significant number of advances towards sustainability and eco-friendliness from top packaging firms.

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