It’s hard to get excited about plastics these days. From BPA in our bottles to massive garbage patches in our oceans, plastic products have given rise to a variety of concerns, all of which are only compounded when viewed in combination with their environmental persistence and low biodegradability. That’s why a recent advancement in PHA biosynthesis from researchers at Tel Aviv University is so exciting.

In a Bioresource Technology article published in September 2018, these researchers described a novel process to produce the biopolymer PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoates) using halophilic archaea (salt-loving bacteria), with seaweed hydrolysate (seaweed broken down with acids) as the source of carbon for the polymer, all without the need for freshwater. Essentially, these scientists have hijacked the cellular machinery of the bacteria (Haloferax mediterranei) to utilize them as tiny living “reactors”, stitching together the long chains of organic molecules that make up PHA.

While this concept of biosynthesis is worthy of exploration and excitement itself, the true value of this innovation relates to what it produces, and how it produces it.

The Versatility of PHA

PHA, the biopolymer produced by the bacteria, can be utilized to make bioplastics with a variety of uses. When compared to traditional petroleum-based plastics, these bioplastics have the noted advantage of being biodegradable, biosynthetic, biocompatible, and recyclable. They also seem to lack many of the disadvantages often associated with greener alternative plastics, including decreased strength, elasticity, and thermal stability. Depending on the envisioned applications, PHA (or its related bioplastic3-hydroxybutyrate-co-3-hydroxyvalerate, or PHBV) can be blended with other polymers and plastics to yield a material with the desired properties.

The progressivity of their process does not stop there, however. The researchers were also able to achieve all of this in an environment devoid of freshwater, something unprecedented up until now. In the field of biosynthesis, the use of large amounts of freshwater is often required to grow and sustain both the organic plant matter used as fuel and the bacterium that uses that fuel to produce bioplastics. This has been a concern for many researchers due to the lack of potentially usable quantities of freshwater in many places around the globe. The scarcity of the required water could hinder the adoption and viability of this technology at industrial scales. The team at Tel Aviv University circumvented this problem by utilizing a fuel source (seaweed) and a reactor (archaea) that both thrive in saline environments.

While bioplastics and bacterial reactors may not be the mainstays of modern plastic production, they have the potential to be powerful new tools that will only get more potent with continued exploration. Research like this is encouraging, allowing us to move into a future that lacks the toxic technologies of yesteryear, instead embracing a more renewable and responsible approach to industry. We hope you share the enthusiasm our team at HTS has for the greener, cleaner future that approaches us!

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