Plants - Factories Of The Future

May 18, 1998

Crops could provide the raw materials needed to make industrial chemicals and polymers, such as plastics, according to CSIRO Plant Industry scientists.

"We have identified genes which when introduced into plants could see the plants operating as mini factories, and offering an alternative to petrochemical oils," said Dr Allan Green, CSIRO Plant Industry, speaking on behalf of the Australian, Swedish and English team.

"The possibilities are immense - components of detergents, nylon, glue, paints, lubricants, plastics could all be produced from plants, rather than fossil materials. Plants could provide a renewable, biodegradable source of these high value speciality products.

"Raw materials used to make polymers and speciality chemicals are modified forms of fatty acids," he said.

"Currently, these modified fatty acids are produced from non-renewable petroleum or by chemical processing of vegetable oils. We have identified genes from wild plants which carry out these modifications inside the plant - no chemical processing and no polluting waste.

"These genes can now be transferred to our major oilseed crops to create highly productive, biodegradable and renewable sources of these raw materials," said Dr Green. "The isolation of these two genes means that we have accomplished the first important step towards producing oilseeds with high yields of important fatty acids."

One gene produces an enzyme responsible for creating epoxy fatty acids, the major components in the production of polymers, used for products such as araldite.

The other gene is responsible for a different enzyme which produces acetylenic fatty acids, important for the synthesis of specialty chemicals, high quality surface coatings, and lubricants.

"This is the first time in the world anyone has isolated a gene responsible for the production of an acetylenic compound. Nobody even knew that such a gene existed before our work started," said Dr Sten Stymne of the Swedish University of Agricultural Science.

The researchers transferred the genes into Arabidopsis - a plant often used as a model by scientists because of its short life cycle and well understood genetics - and produced plants containing significant levels of either epoxy or acetylenic fatty acids in their seeds.

"We now need to incorporate other genes which will help the plants produce higher concentrations of these compounds. We have a good indication of the enzymes that are needed, and potentially useful genes are already available for some of these," said Dr Stymne.

"The genes we identified come from wild plants not suitable for farming because of their characteristics such as low yields, so we are introducing these genes into oilseed plants," Dr Green said. "This could ultimately be a real opportunity for farmers."

"In the future, farmers can look forward to receiving much higher returns for growing these specialty crops, as the value of epoxy oils is almost three times that of ordinary vegetable oils."

This research has revealed a family of enzymes that perform a range of chemical modifications to fatty acids. This knowledge should enable the team to isolate other genes from the family and further expand the types of oils produced in plants.

"Our aim is to be able to design these enzymes to produce fatty acids tailored to specific end product uses. Such fatty acids may be novel ones that don't exist in nature, allowing us to produce entirely new products," said Dr Green, who added that there is still substantial work to be done before plants producing high levels of these fatty acids are widely available.
-end-


CSIRO Australia

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