Bioplastics firm Metabolix Inc. is experimenting with genetically engineering tobacco to create polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) bio-based polymers.
The Cambridge, Mass.-based company said recent testing will provide data for its research into making bioplastics from non-food crops such as switchgrass and sugarcane.
In October, the company completed field trials performed on 0.8 acres of land, with the best plants producing 3-5 percent PHA.
By comparison, in 2008 Metabolix trialed a switchgrass program that yielded 3.7 percent dry-weight bioplastic in the leaves and 1.2 percent dry weight in switchgrass plants as a whole.
The aim of the reaserch is to get about 7.5 percent dry weight from the switchgrass plants; that would be economical for full-scale commercial production, Metabolix officials said.
Oliver Peoples, chief scientific officer, said in a statement that genetic engineering will ultimately support a diverse array of bioengineered, environmentally conscious and economically viable alternatives to petroleum-based products.
Despite a high level of controversy around the issue of genetic engineering, Metabolix said the technology has been used to successfully produce life-saving medicines such as insulin for treating diabetics, as well as cancer-fighting drugs.
Many of the public's negative perceptions of genetically engineered technology were formed years ago when cases of irresponsible science hit the headlines, Metabolix said.
Today, there are standard validated protocols recognized as safe in genetic engineering, as with many other new technologies.
Today bioscience is concerned with safety, the environment and biodiversity, the company said.
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