Biotech Updates

Plants as Solar-Powered Biofactories

March 13, 2009

Scientists at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands achieved a major advance by developing transgenic potato plants producing itaconic acid, a valuable raw material used in the production of high-quality synthetic materials such as resins and acrylic latexes. Iatonic acid serves as a starting material for production of methacrylate, building blocks for PMMA or polymethyl methacrylate acrylic plastic (known also as Lucite, plexiglass or perspex), with a global production volume of 3 million. PMMA is used as a glass substitute, radiation shield, and optical media storage and in bone implants and dentures.

Scientists have long been interested in using plants as biofactories to produce base compounds for the chemical industry. Plants can be engineered to produce hundreds of thousand of tons of a single compound. And since they are solar-powered, plants may offer an eco-friendly way of producing raw building block chemicals.

The scientists, led by Ingrid van der Meer, are still fine-tuning itaconic acid expression in potato. "We now want to investigate in which part of the plant, and in which compartment of the cells, the itaconic acid can be synthesized and accumulated best," says van der Meer. "We already know, for instance, that tubers are far more suitable for the process than leaves."

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