Can plant materials replace plastic?
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What if you woke up one morning to discover that an advanced polymer production facility – a plant capable of producing the raw materials for everything from car parts to packing materials to plastic bags – had been erected in your backyard?

The plant in question is quite literally a plant.

“An important difference between a plant cell and an animal cell is that a large fraction of plant cells is the cell wall. This difference is partly why trees can stand so tall,” says biomaterials researcher Emma Master. “In that cell wall you find cellulose and also other polymers.”

The University of Toronto professor studies how to turn these natural polymers into materials for human use.

Plant polymers hold huge potential for human industry. Plastics. Styrofoam. Fabric. And, as is so often the case with university research, the most exciting advances may well be the materials Master has yet to discover.

Currently, most industrial polymers are derived from petroleum and other hydrocarbon sources, rather than from living things. Master believes it’s possible for plant-based polymer production not only to replace many of these materials, but also to go places it has never gone before.

“We walk through forests and fields and get habituated to seeing plants all around us,” she says. “We might not find them as interesting as animate life at first, until we realize these plants actively synthesize valuable biochemicals – among the most diverse materials you can imagine.”

A polymer is a set of identical subunits (known as monomers) strung together into a large molecule with its own unique properties. DNA and proteins are natural polymers, as are industrial materials such as plastic and Styrofoam.

Polymer production has been a competition between petroleum and plant-based sources for more than a century, with petroleum dominating through much of the 1900s. But with people shying away from oil due to climate science and biological sciences bursting at the seams with new production methods and new data, plant polymers are once again on the rise.

The only trouble is that plants have evolved their polymer production to suit their own needs instead of ours. So Master and her team explore ways of making plant polymer production more consistent and useful to human beings.

“We study how plants make polymers and how microbes degrade them, so we can increase the utility of these polymers by tweaking their chemistry,” she says. “The overall goal is to find alternatives to petroleum materials based on renewable plant-derived materials.”

We want to apply what we’ve learned to make biological products with predictable performance, and to make entirely new materials that can improve the way we live,” says Master. Our motivation is to increase the sustainability of our lifestyle, while also increasing the quality of our lifestyle.”

There are many ways to affect the performance and utility of biological chemicals and polymers. Master’s specialty is using enzymes – catalytic proteins that affect biochemical reactions.

“We are using enzymes to alter the chemistry of complex and heterogeneous plant polymers, so they perform the way we’d like them to. It’s not often necessary to totally revise them – just slightly tweak the chemistry,” she says.

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