November 17, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

New Word Means Green Living: Bioplastics

Did you know that 10% of America’s oil consumption goes into making plastic?  The plastic products from oil pollute our landfills and harm the environment.  Next month, a company founded by a biology professor from MIT is going to make plastic from something green: corn.
    Anthony Siskey and Oliver Peoples, according to PhysOrg, sequenced a gene in bacterium that makes a naturally occurring polyester called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA).  The bacterium creates the bioplastic out of sunlight, water, and a carbon source.  By tweaking the bacterium to produce more PHA, the researchers will be able turn it loose on corn, sugar cane or vegetable oil and other plant material.  The bacteria will reciprocate by cheerfully generating plastic for people.  The resulting bioplastics are biodegradable and reduce dependence on foreign oil.
    Speaking of oil, maybe that is not a product of decayed plants.  PhysOrg reported evidence for a 19th-century theory that oil and gas can be produced by inorganic processes deep in the earth.  If so, that may alter estimates of how much global oil remains in the earth’s crust.

Science is one of man’s most valuable activities when it is done right.  It is an organized form of knowledge construction that should result in benefits for mankind and the environment.  Absent from this project were useless excursions into storytelling.  The researchers made a discovery, tested techniques to amplify the output, applied it, and now have the opportunity to market it.
    If they are successful, it will be a win-win situation for everyone.  Knowledge and wealth will be generated.  The researchers deserve to make money for their invention, and businesses will create new jobs to mass-produce it, create products, and distribute them.  Consumers will enjoy the products, and the earth will be greener.  Governments will benefit from increased tax revenues from both income and sales taxes.  Dependence on foreign oil will decline – a political and economic benefit.  This shows that applied science is not a zero sum game.  Contrary to mercantilism and socialism, nobody has to get poorer for someone to get richer.  Because these researchers had the freedom to investigate and dream, everyone stands to benefit from their scientific discovery.
    And who is the unsung hero of our story?  The bacterium, which already had the information technology to take simple water and sunlight and carbon and build a complex polymer out of it.  There’s a wealth of additional technologies embedded in the living world waiting to be discovered.  The future is bright for biomimetics and information-based research.  Let’s stomp out of the Darwin Theater of the Absurd (11/29/2004) and each help make the world a better place with real, testable, scientific research.  Since science is a product of character and rationality that is not owned by the university, you don’t even have to be a professor to take part (see Citizen Scientist).

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Categories: Biomimetics, Health

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