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NEWS
Producing Plastic From Plants With Engineered Microbe
April 2, 2019

With a few genetic tweaks, a type of soil bacteria with an appetite for hydrocarbons shows promise as a biological factory for converting a renewable – but frustratingly untapped – bounty into a replacement for ubiquitous plastics.


University of Wisconsin–Madison postdoctoral researcher Alex Linz examines a plate streaked with N. aromaticivorans (in yellow), a soil bacterium that could turn a renewable source — lignin from plant cells — into a replacement for petroleum-based plastics. Photo by Chelsea Mamott, GLBRC.

According to information, researchers, like those at the University of Wisconsin-Madison-based, Department of Energy-funded Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), hoping to turn woody plants into a replacement for petroleum in the production of fuels and other chemicals have been after the sugars in the fibrous cellulose that makes up much of the plants’ cell walls.

Much of the work of procuring those sugars involves stripping away lignin, a polymer that fills the gaps between cellulose and other chemical components in those cell walls.

That leaves a lot of useful cellulose, but also a lot of lignin – which has never carried much value. Paper mills have been stripping lignin from wood to make paper for more than a century, and finding so little value in the lignin that it’s simply burned in the mills’ boilers.

“They say you can make anything from lignin except money,” says Miguel Perez, a UW-Madison graduate student in civil and environmental engineering.

But they may not know Novosphingobium aromaticivorans as well as he does.

Perez, civil and environmental engineering professor Daniel Noguera and colleagues at GLBRC and the Wisconsin Energy Institute have published in the journal Green Chemistry a strategy for employing N. aromaticivorans to turn lignin into a more valuable commodity.

“Lignin is the most abundant source – other than petroleum – of aromatic compounds on the planet,” Noguera says, like those used to manufacture chemicals and plastics from petroleum. But the large and complex lignin molecule is notoriously hard to efficiently break into useful constituent pieces.

Enter the bacterium, which was first isolated while thriving in soil rich in aromatic compounds after contamination by petroleum products.


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