Genetic Wizardry with Plants Developing Plastics from Plants May Be The Agricultural Boon of The Future

February 27, 2001 South Bend Tribune

Plastics come from petroleum, but plastics from agriculture is not inconceivable in the years and decades ahead, according to W. Randy Woodson, director of the Office of Agricultural Research at Purdue University.

The Plant Genome Project – the cousin of the Human Genone Project – is fast speeding us to the day "when certainly all the products that are coming from agriculture will be very different," he said.

In the field of plant and animal genomics, there are over 30 gene- shuffling projects at Purdue that will have consequences in agriculture that would seem as remote now as the idea was of inserting an insect-killing bacterial gene into corn just 15 years ago.

For all the cutting, splicing and inserting going on in laboratories, one of the most unique research projects at Purdue involved the work by Clint Chapple in the cloning of the SNG1 gene in the widely studied Arabadopsis plant.

Chapple had been conducting basic research that involved isolating the SNG1 gene that encodes an enzyme involved in the final step of a complicated, biochemical pathway that allows the plant to produce monomers. Monomers string together to form the long chains in plastics, called polymers.

That exercise of genetic wizardry by Chapple and his colleagues caused a stir of interest in biochemistry circles last year.

For that work, Chapple received the 2001 Agricultural Researcher Award at the university. A patent has been filed allowing Purdue and DuPont to develop the gene that would increase the production of unique plastics from plants instead of petroleum.

Plants already produce a limited number of monomers.

But the cloning of the Arabadopsis gene seemed to increase the enzyme activity in a plant "that would allow the plant to accumulate more of these compounds and in a more stable form," he said.

Chapple collaborated with an old associate, Knut Meyer of DuPont, who had been coincidentally working on the same type of project, but using tobacco plants.

"DuPont put our gene into their plants and fortunately it did exactly what we had hoped it would do," Chapple said.

"Plants are really amazing chemical factories," he said. "They can make all sorts of interesting compounds. In many cases they make compounds that organic chemists can't make even in lab. Plants make enzymes, which are biological catalysts that can do very precise, difficult reactions that organic chemists can't do."

This shouldn't humble a hard-working researcher. "Plants have been practicing this for hundreds of millions of years," he said.

The key to future farming applications "is to make this process economically viable," he said from the University of California- Davis where he is on sabbatical. "You have to make a lot (of monomers). You have to count on it being stable."

The successful application of Chapple's cloned gene at DuPont could lead to new types of plastics from even traditional farms.

The challenge is to produce new compounds never seen before. "Really the sky is the limit," Chapple said.

The discovery could lead to another kind of hybrid: a plastic from petroleum-based plastics as well as from plant-based plastics.

Woodson suggested that the agricultural landscape will not likely change 10 years from now – even when plant-producing plastics become available.

Unlike biotechnology and their products – the genetically modified organism, or GMO – this part of genomics does not require the transfer of a strange or foreign gene from a wholly different species.

So the environmental or food safety issues are not apt to arise.

"Frankly, I think (genomics) is going to be the savior of the small family farm," Woodson said. "They give farmers an opportunity to get into a niche market."

However one downside has begun to emerge.

Public institutions like land grant universities may be shut out of the important research years ahead as private industry usurps the creme de la creme of research projects that generate the most profits.

"Because information from the genome projects are so valuable, if public institutions are not involved in generating it, then all the information will be held privately."

Corporations driven by the profit motive will likely focus on a few areas of genetics research. It is an investment-driven race, and right now the corporations are winning.


Staff writer Wayne Falda: (219) 235-6326

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