Potatoes to Diapers

Green DiaperzTransgenic Potatoes Yield Sustainable Diapers


A simple way to kill small talk (or exit a Christmas card list) is to declare that you’ll serve your guests genetically modified food and then explain your affection for biotechnologists work with transgenic plants.

Many have heard that “dangerous” “gm” crops will allow killer tomatoes to escape Frankenstein’s laboratory to take over the earth. Some Christians even insist that biotech causes plants to resist inects, interfering with God’s creation which they believe is a sin.  What they might not have heard yet, besides the fact that the Bible considers locusts a plague and a menace, is the ability of many newly developed transgenic plants to produce renewable resources, an approach that is an environmentally friendly and economically competitive way to supply raw materials to industry.

PotatoeszResearchers at the University of Rostock developed a potato that allows production of biodegradable polymers.  Polymers are usually made from fossil fuels and used in the production of washing powder, cement, or diapers (to name just a few).  Even better: the potato polymer comes from the leftovers of potatoes that were already used to produce industrial starch.

Senior researcher Prof. Inge Broer of Rostock University says that during the last few years her team succeeded in increasing the polymer production of the potatoes to such an extent, that industrial production of the substance could be imminent.   Best of all, the new bio-polymer is biodegradable once the diapers or washing powder are used.  If we can get past our childlike fears of being conquered by franken-potatoes, this new technology will greatly contribute to a cleaner environment.

Not convinced? Here’s the summary of Prof. Broer’s report:

“The production of biodegradable polymers in transgenic plants in order to replace petrochemical compounds is an important challenge for plant biotechnology. Polyaspartate, a biodegradable substitute for polycarboxylates, is the backbone of the cyanobacterial storage material cyanophycin. Cyanophycin, a copolymer of L-aspartic acid and L-arginine, is produced via non-ribosomal polypeptide biosynthesis by the enzyme cyanophycin synthetase. A gene from Thermosynechococcus elongatus BP-1 encoding cyanophycin synthetase has been expressed constitutively in tobacco and potato. The presence of the transgene-encoded messenger RNA (mRNA) correlated with changes in leaf morphology and decelerated growth. Such transgenic plants were found to produce up to 1.1% dry weight of a polymer with cyanophycin-like properties. Aggregated material, able to bind a specific cyanophycin antibody, was detected in the cytoplasm and the nucleus of the transgenic plants.”

The full report appeared in: Plant Biotechnological Journal (2005) 3, pp. 249-258. Prof. Inge Broer’s website: http://www.auf.uni-rostock.de/iln/bt/


About the Author: Holger Thuss