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Scientists Using Genetically Engineered Potato Plants to Produce Base Chemicals Found in Common Household Products

The greenhouse of the Lumen building at Wageningen University. Photo courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org.

WAGENINGEN, Netherlands - Plant Research International and the Microbiology science group, both part of Wageningen University and Research Centre, have jointly developed potato plants that are capable of producing itaconic acid, a chemical ingredient used in common household products.

The itaconic acid is a vital component in products such as acrylic fibers and rubbers, reinforced glass fibers, artificial diamonds, and lenses. The acid is also used as an additive in fibers and ion exchange resins to increase their abrasion, waterproofing, physical resistance, and dying affinity, as well as improve their duration.

It is also used as a binder and sizing agent in non-weaving fibers, paper, and concrete paint. Additionally, itaconic acid is used in water treatment systems to help prevent contamination by metallic alkali.

Chemical industries mostly uses fossil oil and gas derived products as starting material for base chemicals. The university scientists say, “the use fossil resources, however, contributes to carbon dioxide emission, and fossil materials are finite.

Molecular composition of itaconic acid.

“Although it may take another 50 years for fossil oil reserves to run dry, alternative, and preferably renewable sources for the production of chemical building blocks need to be developed today. With this in mind, WUR is exploring the options for using plants to produce compounds that can replace petrochemicals.”

Ingrid van der Meer, one of the scientists involved in the project specifically said, “We now want to investigate in which part of the plant, and in which compartment of the cells, the itaconic acid can be synthesized and accumulated best,. We already know, for instance, that tubers are far more suitable for the process than leaves.”

The first breakthrough for the scientists was to identify the genetic code for the production of itaconic acid within the fungus Aspergillus terreus. This genetic information was then introduced into potato plants via genetic modification, and the plants were then found to be capable of producing acid.

The scientists have yet to determine the ideal way to deploy this system in practice. They are still dealing with issues such as whether the accumulation rate in potato plants can be further optimized and how the itaconic acid can best be harvested.

Further, the Wageningen scientists believe that plants, in general, will at some point in the future be used as a sustainable source for the production of a number of compounds that are currently being produced from fossil oil and gas.

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