More than 32 Million tons of plastic waste end up in our environment per year. Most of it is non-degradable polyethylene, produced from about 8% of the global mineral oil resources. Researchers of the Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology develop new biotechnological solutions to substitute critical processes. In the EU-funded project ROBOX, acib’s partners Uni Maastricht and Chemstream from Belgium have developed an approach to produce polyethylene biologically and sustainably from plant extracts. Enzyme-engineering can help to produce plastic without the use of harmful solvents.
Many bio-plastic bags have no place in the garbage. They dissolve too slowly in oxygen-deficient environments like biogas plants and when incinerated they are a burden to the environment. Enzymes offer a solution to this problem, accelerating degradation and avoid emissions. In the long run, the aim is to reduce plastic mountains and replace conventional packaging by bio-based Polymers.
Enzymes are the tiny helpers of industrial biotechnology. Despite their microscopic size, they need to be tough and diligent because we want them to catalyze a broad range of reactions, ideally with the speed of light for ever after. In reality, however, many enzymes are like sensitive creatures, who need most careful attention and special treats to get their nicest behavior. Otherwise they might fade away like a tender flower in the blinking sun… and send the biotechnologists into terrible trouble. One strategy to find frugal enzymes is to look at thermophilic organisms. They sometimes harbor a treasure of more stable proteins because they are used to withstand somewhat unfriendly conditions such as high temperatures.