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Science

Grow Your Own Plastic 105

Posted by Roblimo
from the just-add-four-bacteria-genes-and-stir dept.
Quetzalcoatl sent in a link to a BBC story about new genetically modified plants from Monsanto that grow biodegradable plastic. Apparently the next step is to get the plants to produce enough plastic to be worth growing commercially, which may not be possible. But hey! You never know until you try, right?
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Grow Your Own Plastic

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  • by pen (7191)
    You're talking about it like it's perl. It's not perl. It's not even C. Not even ASM. It's machine code. Someone else's machine code! Without anything remotely resembling documentation!

    The only way genetic engineering is possible is by taking some genes, sticking some other genes into it, and repeating until something interesting happens.

    Although I like your idea, I think it's a dream for now. Maybe 10 or 20 years later...

    --

  • by konstant (63560) on Monday September 27, 1999 @10:04PM (#1654532)
    Monsanto is the last company I'd want producing plastic, oil, or any other product crucial to the US economy. Greenpeace crazies and eco terrorists are certainly right about one thing - dealing with Monsanto is dangerous for your long-term independence. Their clever mechanism for ensuring repeat buyers is to build infertility into the plants they sell. Farmers buy them because they are indeed very good crops for certain purposes, namely for surviving the popular but toxic herbicide RoundUp, which Monsanto also sells. Monsanto works vigorously to bankrupt competing seed sellers, so that only their perishable brand is available, thus locking farmers into their system for life. Prior to the development of these terminator genes, Monsanto would actually maraud around the countryside burning "illicitly stocked" seed.

    http://www.mat.auckland.ac.nz/~king/Preprints/book /upd/umar99/monsan/ecol1.htm#anc hor52768 [auckland.ac.nz]

    A recent company tactic as been to push this "system" as a solution for hunger in third-world countries. Of course, what it would really entail would be a complete regional ownership by Monsanto of the food supply.

    http://www.greenpeac e.org/~geneng/highlights/food/98_10_15.htm [greenpeace.org]

    Monsanto is also renowned for suing magazines and television stations when they are about to produce an article critical of the company. Most news providers can't fight them, so they buckle and the issues are never aired.

    [inmotionmagazine.com]
    http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/fox.html

    And much like certain proprietary software companies, Monsanto patents its creations. We all are familiar with the stupidity of patenting ideas, and genetic engineering, especially of plants, is quite simply that. One plant can turn into two plants with only a negligable investment of soil, water, and sun. This means they are not a zero-sum game, and hence the arguments against patenting software apply to them.

    Monsanto is one of the least palatable companies out there. They are easily the Microsoft of genetic science. I think I'd rather stick to the Sheiks for my gallon of gas and pound of shrink-wrap, thank you very much.

    -konstant
  • ...the plastic in question was to be made from corn...

    Ooops. Should have said it was made from soybeans (the other major cash-crop around these parts).
    That'll teach me to post late at night!
  • by Paul Johnson (33553) on Monday September 27, 1999 @10:26PM (#1654535) Homepage
    The motivation in that case, of course, isn't keeping genetic purity as much as keeping the farmers from taking some of the seed from a year's crop and just planting it next year, instead of buying more seed from the corporation.

    Who cares what the motivation is? The thing about capitalism is that, basically, it works. Every other system of economics tries to appeal to altruism as the reason for doing the right thing. Capitalism appeals to greed to do approximately the right thing most of the time. This works a lot more reliably.

    Coming back to the point, the GM companies have basically demonstrated that they can either produce "mule" seeds which won't reproduce or they can produce seeds which can copy themselves, at some risk of "contaminating" the local environment (whatever that means). Which would you prefer?

    Paul.

  • Real plants made out of plastic? Cool!

    Now if they can just genetically modify tigers to have acrylic fur!
  • I remember that you used to be able to buy such a mix, called "gasohol". But it has gone out of style. No doubt the machinations of vested interests.

    I don't know about vested interests (especially since at the time I lived in Indiana where 10% alcohol fuel was strongly encouraged thanks to the agricultural economy) but one of the reasons gasahol went out of fashion is that the alcohol had a tendency to eat away at the fuel line hoses...


    --

  • First, this ignores the possibility of becoming self-employed. The section I read mentions this, but dismisses it because only 10% of people are self employed. However the author fails to explain how this low proportion prevents it being a legitimate choice.

    I don't think many small-time businesses can compete with giants like Wal-Mart. A small business cannot afford to build a plant in southeast asia so they can pay workers 5 cents a day. Also, there are some people who just don't want to run a business -- why should they be financially punished for not pursuing a career in business administration? Different people have different talents. Why should a bad CEO be payed 200 times more than what a good salesperson or secretary earns?

    (section about the UK cut-- I don't know anything about the history of Britain)

    Thirdly, the author seems to ignore (unless I failed to notice it) the possibility that anyone has of gaining control of the "means of production" themselves. It is actually fairly easy to set up your own business with your own employees, or for a group of people to form exactly the kind of workers federation that the article proposes. Come up with a sensible plan and the capitalists happily lend you control of the means of production. Prove it effective and you get to keep control. On the other hand if you fail to make best use of the resources you are consuming then control will be taken off you and given to someone who can do better.

    It is a common capitalist mistake to make efficiency equivalent to good. Leftists generally believe human life is more valuable than the dollar. Money is supposed to be a tool to serve us, we are not supposed to be serving money. This is not to say I believe we should give someone who does nothing the same pay as someone who works hard-- I just do not believe we should be slaves to production.

    Considering this system from the point of view of the individual, I can't see any difference. Unless I want to be self-employed (with the same tradeoffs as today) I have to join one of these federations. Once in, I have to do what the currently appointed "managers" tell me to do. As an individual my vote will count for little, and if I am female a member of a minority then there is no reason to suppose that the other members of the collective will be any less bigoted towards me than a capitalist manager.

    This is one of the (many) contradictions of "anarchism." Under a real socialist government minorities would be protected by law. Marx makes a number of good arguments against anarchism and "anarcho-socialism".. unfortunately most of these "anarcho-socialists" are too lazy to read Marx...

  • Somehow this thread seems more apporpriate to http://technocrat.net than to Slashdot. But I guess if this is where the story gets posted...
  • First, please do me a favor and don't assume that anybody who is a socialist is a Marxist or any other form of authoritarian.

    Yeah, that's a fair gripe. But "Socialist-sniper" sounded so good :( Anyway, my beliefs do not lie in central planning, which conflict w/socialism, even if it's not authoritarian per se.

    Second, corporations are not leading us to more economically happy ideas and products. They are also not moving our society towards a more positive future.

    I think they are. Quite simply, except for when we had a big green push about 10 years ago, environmental values have not been enough of a reason to pay an extra "fee" for an item. That is, most people would rather pay $5.50 for a ream of paper (regular) than $6.50 for post-consumer recycled paper. But some people are, and in most cases, all else equal (including price), people will buy the eco-freindly product.

    So, while companies are looking out for their best interests, sometimes it makes sense to help out the environment too. Monsanto has been less than honest about this, but if these plastic plants work, they've done a lot of good too.

  • Now we are simply skipping the middle man and transplanting genes across genetic lines. In all honesty this is SAFER than simply promoting random mutation.

    Argicultural selection does not promote mutation! It is about selective breeding.

    When you cross two strains of tomotoes, or select for a specific quality from a crop, every gene in the resultant strain was already present in the tomato genome. Everything present in the new strain was present in one of the original ones. No new substances are added to the end product, and the change is incremental. These tomato genes have a proven track record for creating safe foods. There won't be anything in your new tomatoes that wasn't in tomatoes before, and the concentration of any harmful substances can only increase a limited amount. If you could eat the old tomatoes safely, you can eat the new ones.

    GM foods introduce new genes (and therefore new substances) that were never present in that plant's genome - or perhaps even in that of any plant we use for food. These genes do not have a proven safety record for producing safe and healthy foods. Tell you what, I'll let you go on ahead and eat them for, say, twenty years or so, and see what happens, then maybe I'll give 'em a try. Meantime I like the old-school foods just fine, thank you very much. I just ask that a) you label 'em so I can tell the difference, and b) you contain the plants and their pollen with biohazard protocols so that their modified genomes don't contaminate the baseline.

    GM is qualitatively different from agricultural selection. The argument by GM apologists that we're just "skipping the middle man" is bogosity incarnate.

  • If I recall correctly, short chain hydrocarbons, like alcohol, contain less energy per unit volume & per unit weight than longer chain hydrocarbons, like kerosine. But the longer chain hydrocarbons are more difficult to get a clean burn with, so gasoline, and intermediate between kerosine and ethanol, is the best choice for cars. Diesels, however, use even longer chain hydrocarbons without too much trouble due to their more effective ignition system. And for a similar reason airplanes use kerosine (thin enought to flow easily, but they burn at a high enough temperature that getting a good burn isn't a problem).
  • Oil is too valuable as an energy source to waste it making Nintendo cartridges.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but the part of petroleum used to make fuel is not the same part of petroleum used to make plastic. If I remember correctly, crude is really a mixture of several different kinds of molecules. In the the refinement process the molecules are seperated out -- some are what we call gasoline, some are kerosene, some eventually are turned into plastic, etc. So we wouldn't really be "wasting" oil by turning it into plastic vs. fuel; the two happen in parallel whether we like it or not.

  • No, you aren't. But you got there before I did.

    Read it, and think.
  • Is IS pretty cool that the plant is actually using carbon from the atmosphere to create the plastic. Could a plant be created which would create "fuel" (like ethanol or methanol or other hydrocarbon)
    Look up jojoba. I think this was the plant researched as a fuel source during WWII.
  • Monsanto is in bed with the Fed bigtime - the US funds "basic research", Monsanto buys only the successful results - the patents on them - cheaply, Monsanto gets rich. The innovation isn't theirs.
  • It would be a neat idea if such a thing didn't exist already. The problem is that the big chemical companies of the time (Monsanto included) pushed to make such a thing illegal in the early '30's. Probably because they couldn't patent it, but that's just IMHO.

    It's called HEMP.

    Rumor is Henry Ford built an entire vehicle, fueled it, and lubricated it from HEMP. Why do we need genetic tampering when we don't know how to use what we have already?

    Idiots.

  • Your description of capitalism disallows private ownership for many people.
    It is a fact, is it not, that in capitalist systems, ownership of capital resources is held by few? A distinction must be made between the ownership of personal goods and the ownership of capital goods and resources. Yes, most people in capitalist societies have some stuff. Only a few control the "means of production." (Sorry, the dozen shares of Micro$oft in your 401(k) don't count - odds are you don't own them anyway, your investment company does.)

    Tom's theory of natural and artificial property: A human being naturally owns their own labor. They naturally own things that they make with that labor from materials and tools that they naturally own, if they don't destroy things they don't own in the process. They naturally own things that they trade their labor or goods for, providing that the other party naturally owns whatever is traded.

    Anything beyond this - ownership of land, of ideas, of corporations, whatever - is an artifical construct that can only be justified if it increases human happiness and contentment. Ownership of capital resources falls into this category.

    ...closer to feudalism than a system based on the free market; that's simply not correct.
    No. Capitalism isn't based on the free market, it's based on state creation of such artificial property as discussed above. If you think otherwise, try to envision a capitalist system without private ownership of land or mineral resourses, without intellectual property, without corporations, without the state enforcing artificial property rights.

    Capitalism is about deciding who owns what to start with; Tom's theory of natural and artificial property (which one might, if one were daring, call a sort of socialism) is another. Markets are about the rules for trading what you are defined to have; a free market works quite well with Tom's theory of natural and artificial property.

    Anyway, back on topic...

    I'd love to have biodegradable plastic, especially if it is cheaper than the current stuff.
    So would I. IMNSHO everything we make should either biodegrade or recycle - I hate trash! I just don't want GM food, and I want strong protections against industrial-use GM plants escaping into the ecosystem. Natural plants that get into foreign ecosystems can do enough damage (kudzu, for example) - I sure as heck don't want nylon dandilions getting into my yard.
  • I agree, there may be problems. But thinking that natural mutation in the plant population doesn't happen is fairly ludicrous. Some of the most potent poisons known to man are produced by natural organisms which have been doing so for much longer than man has even KNOWN DNA was genetic material (or for that matter, before man even understood evolution). Just because an agriculturalist picks for a certain phenotype does NOT mean that other traits aren't passed along with it, of course the overwhelming majority of mutations which could occur in a plant genome would be of no harm to us but there ARE some substantial exceptions. Some of the natural deadly mutations may actually give the plant an adaptive advantage which would also be of advantage to an agriculturalist, such as improved resistance to a certain bacteria or insect. It is a known fact that many plants produce potent herbicides and insecticides, the vast majority of these have no direct effect on us but some could.

    I realize your point, there ARE dangers associated with transgenic crops...but right now those dangers are fairly limited. Taking four genes out of a bacteria and copying them into a plant's genome WILL NOT cause that plant to produce vast quantities of air borne botulin or something. The biggest consequence would be that the genes would have some wierd adaptive advantage and the plants would breed with the wild type and seriously screw up some food crop. Right now most transgenic crops are made thoroughly sterile (and no, don't quote Jurassic Park or something...no one who has ever ran an Ames test would simply modify a simply biogenetic pathway like thymidine generation and assume that meant the population required vast quantities of thymidine and so was under complete control...) so this isn't much of a problem, but it IS the biggest worry I have with GM crops. As far as the crops being safe to eat, simple manipulation of a handful of genes will NOT make the plant a carcinogen or something unless that was the attempt in the first place. We are rapidly approaching the point where small labs will be able to map complete genomes of organisms very quickly. Oddly enough, many food crops have HUGE amounts of genetic material (due mostly to polyploidy, but that doesn't make it too much easier to deal with unless the polyploid events took place recently...) so they may be among the last things routinely mapped. Once we have this capability though, we will be able to spot check crops and stop random mutations before they are widespread enough to cause damage. This alone makes it worthwhile to develop the genetic techniques needed.
  • The infertility is there for a good reason and is propably the only thing that Monsanto is doing right. It prevents the genetically altered material in the crop from spreading into the environment through crossbreeding with other plants. As with animals it can occur that plants from different species crossbreed. There is at the moment a heated debate going on about how propable this crossbreeding is and whether the offsprings are fertile. AFAIK it has not been proven to be nonexistent or indeed safe for the environment so the best way to make sure is to make the crop infertile.

    Monsanto is of course only interested in preventing the weeds from becoming immune to RoudUp but the real concern is that the effects of altered genetical material on the environment are extremely hard to anticipate from theory and even harder to prove conclusively in experiments. Random mutations make the problem even worse since there is presently no way of testing for all possible ways in which the altered stands of DNA could get f...ed up to become voratious superweeds, plant deseases etc.

    Of course Monsanto remains the despicable Microsoft/Nestle/AnyBigCorp that it is for patenting, bullying etc. but it hardly forces you to repeat-buy (you can switch to another seedsupplier anytime) and it isn't this reason why the greens/ecologists abolish the company. The real reason is the danger that it's strategy presents to the environment. When you hear the word genetically altered food you think (at least I did when I heard about it the first time) about genes that make the tomatoes bigger and the apples sweeter etc. when the truth, in fact, is that those things are extremely hard to achieve through direct engineering of the genes and much easier done by the timeprooven methods of breeding and crossbreeding. What is much easier to do and what almost always is meant by genetically engineered plants is that they are made to respond (or not respond) to different chemical compounds. Engineered foodplants are designed to be able to withstand the most efficient and dangerous plant-toxins in vast amounts. When these toxins are subsequently used in vast amounts Natures own weeds will, given time, catch up and develope immunity and it's superweed time with weeds not only take over the cropfields but also the livingspace of other plants.

    Monsanto is despisable for taking the easy way out and thus risking the futur of our environment by
    getting into the ratrace of developing evermore powerfull pesticides and corresponding immune crops to keep ahead of mother natures own immunesystem. This cannot end well, imagine a future where you can throw acid on cropkilling weeds and they'll be able to withstand it! Granted I'm exaggerating but not much.

    -timo


  • ...If I remember correctly, crude is really a mixture of several different kinds of molecules. In the the refinement process the molecules are seperated out -- some are what we call gasoline, some are kerosene, some eventually are turned into plastic, etc.

    [Had to crack open the Organic book for this one...]

    You are correct, crude oil is a mixture of different hydrocarbons, and the first step in purifying them is distilling. (Separating by boiling point.)

    Cracking is the next step, where a large hydrocarbon like kerosene is introduced with water, under high pressure, temperature, and catalyst, to be broken into all kinds of low molecular weight parts. Some of these are recombined to make better burning gasoline.

    Two raw materials for a number of large scale plastics are ethylene and propylene (45 billion pounds a year in 1988). They are made by cracking natural gas or straight run gasoline, so there is some tradeoff between plastics and fuel.

    hmmm...I'd be more inclined to say that oil is too valuable to waste as a fuel source.
    My feeling is that since oil is a finite resource, any substitution we can make with an infinite one is to our benefit. If, right now, we have a good substitute for plastic that is made from a renewable resource, (And doesn't require more fossil fuels to produce, convert into products, and dispose of than a traditional plastic. "Cradle to Grave" life cycle analysis is critical!) then we should save the oil for fuel. If we have a good energy substitute, ("Cradle to Grave", of course) then let's use fossil fuels for plastic. The best option, of course, would be to use a renewable energy resource to produce a renewable plastic, and either leave the oil in the ground or use it to bring up the standard of living of the rest of the world. (Who likely don't care much what Dreamcasts are made of.)

    Given the technology today, I think we're closer to a useful, economic plastic substitute than a fuel substitue. (Although Toyota's hybrid cars look very promising.)

  • Okay, I've heard all the negative stories about Monsanto before, but here's something I'm wondering... Like ADM ("supermarket to the world"), I'm guessing Monsanto has a ton of political lobbyists in Congress. Are they one of those big companies that's supposedly keeping marijuana from being legalized due to hemp being so useful as a raw material that it'd be a lot more cost effective than growing their expensive genetically altered plastic producing plants?

    Or is the whole "hemp can save the planet" agenda just a thinly veiled trick invented by stoners to legalize pot? Or (more likely), does the truth lie somewhere between the two extremes? Inquiring minds want to know!

  • Bacteria have been investigated as a source of biodegradable plastics for quite a while now.
    The species Alcaligenes eutrophes (probably haven't remembered it properly) can convert things like molasses waste into a short chain polymer called polyhydroxybutanoate (PHB). PHB accumulates inside the bacteria as solid granules called inclusion bodies...when you want to make plastic, you burst open your bugs, collect the PHB inclusion bodies, and then mould it into plastic (i think with heat...could be wrong).
    This type of plastic was used to produce some test products in Europe a few years ago...shampoo bottles, disposable containers etc etc...they found that the containers were biodegraded within a several months when placed in conditions like the bottom of a lake, or in landfill.
    Last i read about this sort of plastic was that the cost of the raw materials (molasses waste, glucose, ethanol) made PHB derived plastic too expensive compared to traditional oil-produced plastic. Scientists were messing around with regulatory genes, and moving the PHB synthesis pathway genes to other bacteria, to try an improved the efficiency of the process
  • This is what GM is all about - finding novel uses for plants, not screwing around with stuff we eat.

    There's a lot of hostility to GM foods (outside the US, anyway). I think Monsanto and the other users of GM techniques would have done a lot better to develop this plastics process first (ie producing something interesting and actively green since it cuts consumption of finite resources) than to wind up public opinion by pushing something which only benefits the producers.

    If customers don't like it, they won't buy it.
    --

  • Why don't they put in some trial crops of those plants you see in waiting rooms. Preliminary studies have shown that they also contain a high percentage of plastic. They don'y require water either so they could be used to revegetate desert areas too. Don't think it's biodegradable though!
  • Biologically produced / biodegradable plastic has been around for at least five or ten years, if not longer. I first learned about a version grown by a bacterial strain in a petri dish several years ago -- sorry I can't cite that better, it's been a while. The problem at that point was that [a] it was of poorer quality than conventional petroleum based plastic, and [b] it was difficult to grow in any significant quantities. It's surely just a matter of time though, as the principles seem fairly solid. Who knows, maybe the organic chemists will be able to synthesize other petroleum byproducts too, like gasoline & motor oil. If they can get one derivitive, I'm not aware of why they couldn't get others as well. This could prove useful when petrol stocks start drying up in a couple decades...

    ...but then again, fuel cells seem more interesting to me as far as that goes: the only chemicals involved are hydrogen, oxygen, and water, and you get energy useful for electricity, propulsion, or however you care to harness it. Very clean & efficient too, at least on paper. I'm hoping someone can build a useful & affordable fuel cell system to address the fossil fuel shortage. But that's a tangent I won't pursue farther here...



  • by Psiren (6145) on Monday September 27, 1999 @11:41PM (#1654562)
    So its all true. Money really does grow on trees. Well, credit cards do... ;)
  • Anybody here from Brazil? Didn't I hear that you have cars running on 100% methanol? So the corrosion problem isn't insurmountable?
  • AFAIK, Celluloid was the first plastic ever used commercially, and it's made from wood fibers.

    I never heard whether celluloid was bio-degradable, but I know it does tend to disintegrate under UV light.

    -jcr
  • This isn't mentioned in that article, however, given that this plastic would be made from a replenishable supply, it doesn't matter if you burn it as the plants can only contain as much carbon as they abosorb during their lifetimes (no net carbon input to the atmosphere)

  • Fuel from plants has been done since at least the 1930's. Diesel enginges can burn soybean oil, and cars can run on ethanol fermented from corn or pretty much any other grain.

    What keeps this from happening on a large scale, is that petroleum is really, really cheap.

    Keep in mind also, that petroleum is *very* plentiful. If the price of gasoline rises to even $3/gallon, then we'll see it getting steamed out of tar sands and cooked out of shale.

    -jcr
  • The thing about capitalism is that, basically, it works.
    It sure does! Of course, you have to remember what the purpose of capitalism is - to concentrate the wealth generated by labor into the hands of a few. Capitalism does this quite well, as any analysis of the distribution of wealth in the USA shows.

    Capitalism appeals to greed to do approximately the right thing most of the time. That's more an issue of free markets for labor that of capitalism. The two are not the same. Free markets are about personal choice; capitalism is about control of others and profiting from their labor.

    GM companies have basically demonstrated that they can either produce "mule" seeds which won't reproduce or they can produce seeds which can copy themselves, at some risk of "contaminating" the local environment (whatever that means). Which would you prefer?
    If they're growing food crops, I'll take neither, thank you very much. GM companies should not be allowed to fsck with the food supply. (At the very minimum, they should be required to inform consumers that their products contain GM crops, so that consumers can make a free informed choice.)

    If they're doing whiz-bang stuff like chemical production with GM plants, not only do I want them muled, I want them grown in sealed greenhouses with biohazard protections. Belt-and-suspenders.

  • What keeps this from happening on a large scale, is that petroleum is really, really cheap.
    Only because there are many external costs that don't show up in the price at the pump.

    Start by considering the environmental impacts of non-renewable fuels. Then consider the foreign policy costs of maintaining the flow of oil from the Mideast.

    If we had to pay the true, all-costs-included, price for a gallon of gas at the pump, renewable fuels would be a lot cheaper than petroleum.

  • by Callan (46311) on Tuesday September 28, 1999 @07:23AM (#1654569)
    Yeah, but a farmer sells every scrap of produce he grows anyway.

    Let me climb up to my soapbox here:

    2 (essentially) types of corn grown on the US side of the sea:

    1. Corn grown to feed the varmits (cattle, horses, swine, etc). This is the majority of where the grain produced on US farms goes -- livestock, either domestically or internationally.

    2. 'Sweet' corn. Not grown for the above, but actually used for human consumption. That's your canned cream corn, etc.

    Now -- here's the part that is generally misconcieved:
    Very few (under 1 percent) of farmers store grain for next years crop from what they planted. That hasn't really been done since the turn of the century. Why? They have bins with propane dryers on them to keep the seeds from getting moist (and going bad, or sprouting in storage). It costs too much to run that year round.

    Essentially: If a farmer keeps grain he's guaranteeing that he's going to loose money on it.
    Better to leave that to the people who are in the business of supplying seed yearly. They do it more efficiently (and cheaply) than any one farming corp could (unless its a very BIG farming corporation).

    Also -- Monsanto IS satan in the agriculture business. Farmers have been bitching about that company for years (why, for instance, do they sell their product to Argentinan farmers for a third what they sell here? Nothing against Argentina, but the descrepency is annoying). It is essentially a monopoly (they are more or less the MS of agriculture).
  • Disclaimer: I do know a little about plastics, but I'm speculating about Monsanto's particular plastic.

    Do we really need more ways to create plastic? Exactly how biodegradable is this stuff?

    My opinion is yes, we need more ways to create plastic. Oil is too valuable as an energy source to waste it making Nintendo cartridges. It would be best to run off renewable sources, like solar or wind, but until they become (more) cost-effective, at least we'll be reducing the ammount of fossil fuels we use up.

    As for how degradable it is, the biodegradable polymer council [socplas.org] points out the following:

    "The U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the American Society for Testing and Materials have each devised strict guidelines and test methods for degradbility, which members of the Degradable Polymers Council ascribe to and promote. Degradable plastics technology generally recognizes that a degradable plastics product achieves ultimate full mineralization, meaning it breaks down into carbon dioxide and biomass, water and humus, and leaves behind no toxic residue."

    I would speculate that their product is compostable, and degrades under compost conditions in about 3-6 months. Most likely, if a cup made from this material degraded when you threw it on the side of the road, it would be useful commercially. Without knowing more about it, I can't guess any better.

  • the problem with that is twofold, first that collecting the hydrogen would be 'problomatic' in that it's a gas, and second that the storage requirements are difficult. I don't want to drive around with at 3,00 cubic foot tank to store fuel, and compressed hydrogen is extremely flammable
    "Subtle mind control? Why do all these HTML buttons say 'Submit' ?"
  • You are aware that GM foods have existed since the early 40's, right? They used to just bombard the seed with radiation until they got one that had the desired trait via mutation, then try to breed out the undesired ones. Now it is just done via genetic science.
  • Yeah, it turns out Rudolf Deisel produced an engine designed for vegetable oil originally.
    Check out http://www.veggievan.org

    I guess that in the day, veggie oil was too expensive (and petrolium was cheap). Not to be cynical, I'm sure the petrolium industry is doing their best to cause problems converting to biodeisel anyway, but....
  • Again, disclaimer: I don't know about this particular plastic of Monsato's. There was more information around about their failed product, Biopol [monsanto.com] than this new product.
    It's flexible enough, to be sure. But how durable is this stuff? Could it be used for all the purposes which any given type of plastic is used for today?

    Most likely, it is durable under "normal" conditions. (Room temperature and humidity) It'll probably melt at typical plastic processing temperatures, (>230 F) and degrade in compost or some other unusual condition. If it can't survive room temperature, it wouldn't be commercially viable. Other biodegradable polymers can be made into fibers for clothing, and films or containers for packaging. Monsanto's Biopol could be made into credit cards. [ramresearch.com]

    If the plastic can somehow be "extracted" from the plants, then I'm assuming it's in liquid form.

    The plastic probably isn't a liquid in the canola seed. It is likely they'll use a solvent to dissolve the polymer from the seed meal, and then purify the plastic and recover the solvent.

  • by shaldannon (752) on Monday September 27, 1999 @08:00PM (#1654576) Homepage
    So when do they start growing your dinner in its plastic packaging? ;)


    Who am I?
    Why am here?
    Where is the chocolate?
  • by KingJawa (65904) on Monday September 27, 1999 @08:02PM (#1654577) Homepage
    I'm probably going to come off sounding like a big time Socialist-sniper, but whatever. It happens. It's amazing that people (read: Sierra Clubbers, Greenpeace, et all) always assume that government will lead the way to more economically happy ideas and products.

    Bzzt.

    Look at this thing. A plastic making plant. Why? Because fossil fuels (which plastic is made from) is in finite supply--sooner or later, we are going to run out, and as supply gets lower, prices get higher. Also, having biodegradable plastic products means that there is no special dumping fees needed, and thereby lesser costs. Sure, I don't expect us to be using plant plastic anytime soon, nor do I expect the plastic to biodegrade overnight, but it's a step in the right direction.

    And it's not because some politician said "make it so" (gratuitious Picard reference), but rather because it will sell. Let's just hope it works.

    oh, yeah, first post (I think).
  • by cdlu (65838)
    I can just see little advisory notes on my yogurt containers. "Eat within 48 hours of purchase, or your container risks rotting."
    Monsanto is the company that makes Bovine Growth Hormone, isn't it? The stuff that caused a big stink but is still in use in the US...hmm. Hopefully they won't make speakers out of this plastic - or monitors.
    You know how your hardware turns yellow after a long time? Now it will turn in to a pile of soil...
    Hmm. Oh well. Its all in the name of progress, eh? :)

    (doesn't roblimo _sleep_?)
  • So it's biodegradable. How useful is it? One of the best things about plastic as a material is that it last a long time as well as being easy to work with and reasonably strong for its mass. Personally, the idea of my keyboard growing moss on it is not appealing...
  • Most of the things we use today are biodegradable... We use them in the most important things in out life... Heard of wood? Unless you plan to keep your keyboard for 30+ years I wouldn't worry...
  • Yowza. And you thought AMD had bad yields in its yesteryears...

    How does the plant produce the plastic, anyways? Does it supplement the cellulose in the cell walls? Is it present in the sap fluid? What kind of refining and purification processes does this sort of thing take?

    You'd think that the biotech scientists would take this research one step further, and splice much more useful genes into the plants. Insulin production leaps to mind.
  • Biodegradable plastic is a wonderful breakthrough. Computer makers all over now have yet another argument to convince us to buy new computers every year... "Warning: This computer might or might now grow into a killer, sentient moss with the ability to process 600 000 000 000 multiply-accumulates per second".
  • by mOdQuArK! (87332) on Monday September 27, 1999 @08:09PM (#1654586)
    Do we really need more ways to create plastic? Exactly how biodegradable is this stuff? (I'm assuming that it has a different molecular structure than the "usual" stuff produced by refining oil, since that isn't very biodegradable at all.)

    Is it edible? :) Actually, it would be interesting if an INSECT found that it was edible, and then acquired a "taste" for regular plastic - would our civilization collapse?

    Is IS pretty cool that the plant is actually using carbon from the atmosphere to create the plastic. Could a plant be created which would create "fuel" (like ethanol or methanol or other hydrocarbon) in liquid form (rather than having to harvest the plant & go through some kind of refining process)? That would be cool - little "fuel bulbs" hanging from a tree like fruit. Just imagine what would happen if the tree caught fire though...

    What would also be cool is if somebody came up with a plant which ATE plastic and turned it into some other useful form, or maybe back into a tree. You could plant a forest on top of each landfill, and harvest it on a regular basis.
  • I believe "plastic" was used in the physical sense of the word, as in "not elastic". What you get is similar in physical properties to petro-plastic (capable of being molded and formed) , but is not based on hydrocarbons.

    Presumably, the latter is what allows it to be biodegradable. Doesn't sound like we'll have petrochemical-producing plants any time soon; but if all you want is fuel, let's just make more booze!

  • Things expected to be used more than a few months probably would be better made of petroleum plastic.

    When it rains, my newspaper comes wrapped in a plastic bag secured with a rubber band. That bag could easily be made of biodegradable plastic (assuming the stuff is water resistant). The newspaper inside turns a uniform yellow after a few weeks in the sun, having it then get soaked because the plastic degraded wouldn't be a big deal, really.

    I bet there are all kinds of highly disposable packaging material which would be fine for this stuff.
  • It's flexible enough, to be sure. But how durable is this stuff? Could it be used for all the purposes which any given type of plastic is used for today?

    That's the thing: if this can't be used in many areas, then it will only delay the inevitable, rather than stopping it. Still, it's certainly a good start.

    One thing, though. If the plastic can somehow be "extracted" from the plants, then I'm assuming it's in liquid form. If that is the case, why not skip cress and genetically engineer a tree? The plastic would probably have to be secreted into the sap. Then the tree could be tapped like maple trees are for syrup. You could gather the plastic without doing significant harm to the tree, thereby enabling you to get more plastic from it later.

    That would certainly increase yields at least somewhat, since you wouldn't have to kill the plant to get the plastic.
  • If they can do plastic, Oil's only a step behind. How long before the southern farmers start growing OPEC out of business?

    And how soon before OPEC realizes that, buys the patent, and buries the technology along with the 100 mile per gallon carburator, the 5 year lightbulb and the honest politician?

  • Thats if you know you're buying it. I think it was only recently that they made it a requirement to label food packages with GM ingredients. I for one have never looked for it, so I've probably eaten tons ofthe stuff already. Never done me any harm so far... I hope...
  • The article does mention the earlier bacterial work, and points out the failings. The plant method is supposed to produce high quality plastic.

    As for fuel from plants, that's already here. Lots of European farmers grow oil seed rape for the production of a cleaner alternative to diesel fuel for trucks etc...

    I can't provide a reference for that I'm afraid, but I'm pretty sure it's the case.
  • Add a few rubber plant genes and you have a condom tree. (I thought I saw one of those at the beach once... halfway down a cliff as I recall)

    So this is going to make plant-pots redundant, right?

    And we'll have cabbages that wrap themselves in cling-wrap?

    I'm getting an indoor biro-tree to put next to the phone.
  • Just think.. In some places you have recycle bins for everything from cans to paper and plastic.. This is all well and good. But imagine having a recycle bin to put say your grass after you cut it.. Or better yet, everyone has a service that comes by, cuts your grass, and then takes the grass and turns it into plastics.. Then we would not have fields and fields of this genetic plant, but people would be growing it without even thinking about it in their own back yards.. It would be going back to the good old days of living off of the fat of the land. Everyone would be providing for themselves, our parks would become "farms" for this plastic.

    Just think about the business you could start, you could run a processing plant for this new grass (I am calling it grass because I think once they figure this out they could make it for any type of plant, grass is very abundant and grows fast, and is very common), you could also go around having people pay you to replant this grass in their yards/ in all the local parks, you could then charge for triming the grass and carrying it away, and then you could make money selling this plastic.. Sounds like you make money at every turn, it just depends on how much you really want to own a landscaping business I guess :)
  • Uhhh... Man, we've got completely natural and biodegradable stuff, that we even use to build our homes. This is wood, of course. Wooden buildings stand for centuries all right. But as soon as you bury wood into the soil, it starts to rot pretty fast. See the point?
  • "Monsanto, the US biotech corporation, has indicated that it is considering a major climbdown over genetically modified food in Britain. It has offered to use its vast gene databases to help plant breeders create new varieties of crops using traditional cross-breeding techniques."
    The Guardian, Sunday September 26th 1999 [guardianunlimited.co.uk]

    "The Soil Association yesterday described as "hugely significant" indications from the US biotech company Monsanto that it might be prepared to rethink its commitment to genetically modified food in Britain."
    The Guardian, Monday 27th September 1999 [guardianunlimited.co.uk]

    Now... what's going on here? I suspect that Monsanto is trying to regain shareholder confidence (after the Deutschbank recommended against investment in GM foods), or trying to bolster PR and associate their name with benevolence before they hit us with GM food again five or ten years from now. The less cynical side of me, however, is rather hoping that they've actually rethought the direction of their business due to public pressure. Power to the people [dmac.co.uk]!

    Hamish

  • "The species Alcaligenes eutrophes (probably haven't remembered it properly) can convert things like molasses waste into a short chain polymer called polyhydroxybutanoate (PHB)."

    Now that would be cool if we could convert all our PHB's (Pointy Haired Bosses) into fuel. That would be a (quite) infinite ressource given their number and that wouldn't be a big loss
    ;-)
  • Some of the seeds that are now supplied to farmers have been modified to not be able to breed at all.

    Some of the dinosaurs that were supplied to Jurassic Park were modified not to be able to breed at all.

    I know that was fiction, but Monsanto have made promises in the past [planetwaves.net] which have turned out to be less than the whole truth.

    Hamish
  • My opinion is yes, we need more ways to create plastic. Oil is too valuable as an energy source to waste it making Nintendo cartridges. It would be best to run off renewable sources, like solar or wind, but until they become (more) cost-effective, at least we'll be reducing the ammount of fossil fuels we use up.

    hmmm...I'd be more inclined to say that oil is too valuable to waste as a fuel source.
  • This is just PR. It has nothing to do with Monsanto's core business of selling GM food plants and pesticides. Monsanto has a terrible image in .uk at the moment ( although mostly for "eek! Frankenstein food" reasons, and not it's appalling business ethics); this is the second pro-Monsanto story that's made it into the uk press in the last week or so (search at the Guardian [newsunlimited.co.uk] for "Monsanto hints at u-turn on GM food in Britain" for another); looks like they got themselves some new PR consultants.
  • Have you ever eaten a tomato? How about corn (or any corn product)? Do you know what true wild type corn and tomatoes look like? Comparing what we call corn and tomatoes to what these vegetables are like in the natural world is (pardon the pun ;) like comparing apples to oranges. The next time you are in South America take a look at what the local market calls corn, then drive seventy miles down the road and look at what their market calls corn. The two types of corn may be different COLOR (and I don't mean sickly whitish yellow versus bold yellow...I mean like BLUE or GREY...). Oh, and those aren't the actual wild types either, they have just been cultivated less severely.

    Since the dawn of the agricultural age (and actually before if you consider breeding of dogs and such), man has been tampering with the genetics of other organisms. Up until recently we were using nature to slice and dice the genetic material and we acted as an artificial selection mechanism (we picked what we liked, not what was most adapted to a certain place...). Now we are simply skipping the middle man and transplanting genes across genetic lines. In all honesty this is SAFER than simply promoting random mutation. When we transplant genetic material, we usually go after VERY specific things(hopefully, or you never know what you would get...and it costs too mcuh to generate mass quantities of GM things just to see what happens :). Take the transfer of the human insulin gene into E. coli. We knew we would have to wait a LONG time for random mutation to produce a strain of E. coli which naturally generated insulin. Even assuming it did come about, it probably wouldn't produce too much of it (it doesn't need it, so where is any pressure to produce it...). So the simple step of copying the gene into the E. coli genome was taken (actually, a lot of copies where put in...but you get the picture), now that strain of E. coli produces insulin that MILLIONS of people need to live.

    I know I went off on a little rant there (and it may not be completely cohesive...I'm pretty much running off of Mountain Dew and ephedrine right now...I may re-post after a few hours of sleep ;) but the point should be clear. We aren't doing anything we weren't doing before, we are just skipping the middle man. With the plastic producing plant, all that happened was they took genes that coded for something that they wanted (that occur NATURALLY...these aren't artificial genes coding for purely man made proteins or something like that ) and copied them into somethign easy to grow big so that the stuff they code far is easy to gather. Humans aren't too far from being able to hand code genes to produce what we want (actually we can kinda do it now, but the whole secondary structure of proteins thing still has us kinda at a standstill...), but as of right now we are limited to either copying what has already been made in nature or mildly altering it by only a few base sequences (or a handful of amino acids if you wanna take the protein view...).
  • ***boggle***

    Uh, I've been using stuff made from plants that been's biodegradeable for years -- cotton, paper, linen, wood -- you get the idea.

    IMHO, plastic has been marketed as a replacement for metal & ceramics, in part because it's cheaper, in part because it doesn't have some of the drawbacks the other two have (e.g., being hit over the head with a plastic phone won't cause the same damage that being hit with a metal one would).

    Talk about reinventing the wheel. And doing it poorly in order to charge consumers more. Sometimes I'm certain the marketroids *do* have too much power.


    Geoff
  • There are other problems with planting the products of many modern crops as well. Many of the traits we like from the crops are only there because the corn (or whatever...although this DOES apply to corn more than most other food products...) is heterozygous for a certain (or many...) trait.

    This is a true lide example, so if you don't like reading things like this...don't ;) My grandfather is a fairly small time farmer (well, he has several substantial pecan farms...but only grows corn for the hell of it, or at least that's all I've ever seen him do with it...sure we eat some of it, but he ends up giving like 75% of it away...). One particular type of corn he plants is called G90 (I think it is in the final experimental stage at an agri substation of the University of Arkansas, which is where he gets the seeds...). Every year he basically has to beg and plead for seed, so he asks if I know anything about how to basically pick out the "right" kernels to plant. He knew that you couldn't just plant the seed outright and get 100% viable G90... The kernels of the corn are about 25% white and the remainder an off yellow, which leads me to believe it is atleast heterozygous for one trait. At the time I was about to graduate with a biology undergrad degree and had already been accepted intop grad school for molecular biology program so in the ever so less than humble attitude of most wannabe scientists I tell him "sure, shouldn't be a big deal at all." Well, after experimentally planting around 150 kernels (I tried to make the selection as random as possible...but made fairly extensive notes about what was planted where) I believe (this was last summer...and I don't have the notes with me right now...) there were 13 varieties of corn produced. There were three distinct colors (well, whitish yellow and two different shades of yellow), several varieties of mother plant, and some of the kernels were dried out looking. About 30-40 percent of the kernels from the various plants would have been viable to sell, but only 10-15% of the corn ears were completely viable, most had atleast a few percent of the dried out looking kernels which looked rather unappetizing. I did figure out that the white color was a recessive trait because ALL of the white kernels which were planted produced other white kernels and the yellow kernels produced mixed results. I am assuming that the odd shade of yellow was actually produced by something else and not the primary pigment because the numbers where just too close to simple dominant-recessive single gene on that factor. Assuming I could have continued the experiment into this past summer and maybe even next year (or have access to a greenhouse...), I'm sure I could have true bred some of the traits and turned the corn back into something approaching sellable (no shriveled kernels...) but it it would have taken a great deal of effort and time to produce a seed line (set of parents) that would generate exactly what I started out with 100% (or high 90s at least...)of the time.

    Basically, my point is that there is more to it than just storing seed (which you pointed out would be a considerable expense for any farmer planting more than a few acres of corn and less than a few thousand...).
  • (BTW, recent work has been done on putting vaccines into plants.) With regard to 3), I think the position that the free market will create most things and really we should just leave private industry to get on with it is unfounded historically. Most major technological advancements I can think required government funding not just for the initial "blue-sky" science but for development as well - Computers: WWII. Micro-electronics: Military Aerospace and NASA. The Internet: DARPA. Many drugs are created by the use of public funds, despite what Big Pharma would like you to believe. Today the US goverment funded NIH is at the cutting edge of biological and medical research. I'm not saying that we should abandon private research or patent protection, just that large corporations have a vested interest in propogating the myth that if they're not given a free reign, innovation will halt.
  • What would be MORE ideal is if we could get a plant to split a water molecule (via photosynthesis), and instead of building sugars, simply produce molecular hydrogen, and store the hydrogen somehow, raw, harvest that stored hydrogen, and you have power for all the fuel-cells that will be running the world in the next century.

    "The number of suckers born each minute doubles every 18 months."
  • If you are going to talk about how and why corn is planted - please get your facts straight.

    Yes - very few farmers use what they grow as seed for the next year. BUT it is not the storage costs. After you get corn dried down to about 20% moisture, you don't need expensive propane driers, etc. Just a cool (but not freezing) dry location.

    Farmers don't replant what they grow because you don't get as strong of plants that way. Go back to basic genetics. To get a "super" plant you take two inbred lines, and then cross them to get a hybrid. This hybrid has "hybrid vigor" which makes it MUCH stronger and higher yielding than either of its parents.

    Seed corn companies produce various varieties of inbred lines by growing corn that polinates itself for many generations. Then they plant the two inbreds in the same field. The one inbred is designated the female and so has it's male parts (the tassle) removed. The other inbred is designated the male and left alone. Wind (and sometimes helicopter generated wind) spread the pollen from the male plants tassle to the female plants ears of corn. This gives you the genetic cross or hybrid.

    If the farmer was to replant his own corn, he would be planting an inbred line again and each generation would result in lower and lower yields. Obviously this doesn't make sense. However to get a good genetic hybrid takes a lot of high-school kids walking through fields removing tassles and specialized knowledge on which inbreds to cross etc. This specialized skill and knowlege and economies of scale are why companies like Pioneer specialize in producing the seed for farmers.

    Monsanto has high prices for some of their agricultural chemicals because of the patents they have on them. But, these chemicals work well and farmers are pay the price for them because they allow them to get higher yields. People can (and a few do) farm without them, but their yeild is reduced so much that they loose more money than they would have paid for the chemicals. It is the free market - with a little patent protection.
  • I have my facts straight. My family currently operates a 2000 acre farm in western Indiana. Yep, I've even detasseled. Good, sweaty, fun work.

    1. Name a 'cool' dry place in the middle of the Prarie that doesn't involve a bulldozer and a couple of hundred tons of cement. The winters are very wet in the plains and midwest, and getting that grain out of the aluminum storage bin (with a good profit from the market) is priority number one for any farmer interested in making a buck.

    2. Farmers don't replant what they grow because it COSTS TOO MUCH MONEY TO KEEP IT with the current storage technique of gas drying and the humidity east of the Rocky's. It's a function of climate, technology, opportunity cost (will the market go up or down), and *yes* genetics that prevent farmers from storing seed crop.

    Your point about genetics is accurate and a very good addition to my original point, but your attack on my 'knowledge' base is, frankly, unfounded.



  • I'm first referring to this part of the post, which is somewhat off topic, but whenver one gets into a discussion of capitalism and free markets, it is important to quell this common error.

    You said:
    Free markets are about personal choice; capitalism is about control of others and profiting from their labor.

    Webster's Dictonary says:
    capitalism - noun - an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market

    While the two are not the same, they are very closely related. I'd even argue that Webster's definition should drop the words "mainly by", as pure capitalism is a free market economic system.

    Anyway, capitalism does not have anything to do with "control of others". Rather, it is the economic system of the free market, and therefore is determined by competition and private choice.

    Your description of capitalism disallows private ownership for many people. You imply that the worker does not own himself and thereby is not allowed to make his own choices. Your description of capitalism is closer to feudalism than a system based on the free market; that's simply not correct.

    Speaking of private choice:
    If they're doing whiz-bang stuff like chemical production with GM plants, not only do I want them muled, I want them grown in sealed greenhouses with biohazard protections. Belt-and-suspenders.

    Right, private choice based on personal preference. My preferences differ--I'd love to have biodegradable plastic, especially if it is cheaper than the current stuff. I do agree that part of the duty of government is to fix problems with asymmetric information, and therefore concur with your request that GM companies "be required to inform consumers that their products contain GM crops".

  • A similar story appeared in, IIRC, the Des Moines Register (the plastic in question was to be made from corn, and Des Moines is in corn country). It indicated that, while the biodegradability of the plant-derived plastic would make it a poor choice for some products (you don't want your vinyl siding to crumble and dissolve after a few seasons) it's an excellent choice for others.

    The (U.S.) Navy, in particular, is interested in biodegradable food containers that can be safely tossed overboard rather than stored up (smelly, esp. on long voyages) and hauled ashore for disposal. Not that they do that now - they throw their waste overboard anyway. But biodegradable plastics would make it more acceptable.
  • Some of the seeds that are now supplied to farmers have been modified to not be able to breed at all.

    The motivation in that case, of course, isn't keeping genetic purity as much as keeping the farmers from taking some of the seed from a year's crop and just planting it next year, instead of buying more seed from the corporation.

    More to the point: this kind of technique is getting to be reasonably advanced, I'm sure they could arrange so that the only plants outside of their sealed lab with that gene are incapable of actually breeding.
  • Oh, grow up.

    1) splicing a gene to produce something "useful" like insulin into a plant is not an easy thing to do. You're taking an animal characteristic and trying to give it to a plant.

    2) Insulin production is already as high as it needs to be, and relatively inexpensive, as well. Sheep and pigs naturally produce insulin, and can be easily modified to produce fully human insulin. (Sold under the trade name Humilin.)

    3) If you wait for the government to decide to allow such things, and especially if you wait for the government to fund it and create them, you will be waiting a long time. Accept that a free market creates most - not all - of the things you will need, with the price of fair payment to the creator, and learn to accept it.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Insulin production is one among the first biogenetic engineering product. insulin is now produced via bacterial way, instead of traditional large mammal collection. far cheaper and faster to make.
  • This is all very interesting, but what I missed is the type of plastic that is made, and what products can be made with it. Some plastics can be turned to fibres that can be used to make clothes. Paper is made from rags, mostly cotton (I think). It would be wonderful to have a plastic with which you can make clothes, and then be able to make paper from these clothes. Just my 2 cts.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Ever seen the plants dependent on a fire-cycle for reproduction on a hot day?

    They release flamable vapours into the air and wait for a spark.

    a big forest of eucalypts can go up like a fuel air bomb.

    i saw a discovery channel peice where a plant in the middle east does this trick and can be set off by the flint rocks in its environment rolling downhill (possible origin of the biblical burning bush)

    as for the plastic... they have almost certainly put the genes together from other naturally occuring processes that could achieve their goals..

    to my knowledge genome mapping is decades away from just making this stuff up on the fly...

    regs,
  • Visa or Mastercard?
  • by Anonymous Coward
    It's pretty hard to tell what's going on in the blood stream from the intestine, so even if we did know how to clone regulation into e. coli, it wouldn't work. And cloning a gene into a bug to produce one product is hard enough. When you want to be able to regulate that gene in response to the glucose concentration of the blood stream you're talking impossible with current technology.

    Also, making bacteria produce anything they're not supposed to generally kills them. They have to divert all kinds of resources away from their mainline metabolism and they fill themselves with a product that they often can't break down. They're at a survival disadvantage compared to bacteria without the plasmid in question; the modified bacteria would die out in nature. To get around this in the lab we normally add an antibiotic resistance to the plasmid so anything without it can't survive in our medium. We also insert a plasmid with a regulation sequence so we only turn on expression of our product once we've let the e. coli culture grow for a while - they won't survive long enough to keep dividing once they start expressing our product.

    To further complicate things, a lot of proteins have carbohydrate groups stuck on them. This is what leads to the human blood types of A,B, and O. Bacteria don't have the appropriate enzymes to modify the amino acid side chains and put the finishing touches on a lot of proteins.

  • Look beyond the politics for a bit...What we have here is a way to produce plastics without needing to have to use more fossil fuels and expensive (and toxic) manufacturing processes. I love the idea of being able to grow my computer's case. :P

    Flames to /dev/null
  • I recall a news item about 4 or 5 years ago about Michigan State Univ. (which is a big agricultural school) developing a potato which instead of producing starch like most potatos developed plastic. It too was readily biodegradible.

    I wonder if this would constitute prior art?

    BTW, I think the potato was also not digestable, which poses interesting prospects for diet food.

    --McFly777 (the number is the answer)
  • So.... If the bees collect pollen from the plastic plants do we get plastic honey? If the larval bees eat the plastic honey do we get plastic bees?

    Never Mind...
  • I had a look at the "True Ideals of Socialism" link. Interesting. Its the best summary of anarchist thought I've seen so far, and worth reading.

    However I can't agree with it. Most of the text (I've sampled it, but not read it completely yet) is an explanation of why Capitalism=slavery, basically because your boss is able to tell you what to do on pain of sacking, and your only choice is to find a different boss.

    First, this ignores the possibility of becoming self-employed. The section I read mentions this, but dismisses it because only 10% of people are self employed. However the author fails to explain how this low proportion prevents it being a legitimate choice. Indeed, I could become self employed tomorrow if I wanted, and I know people who have done so. I choose not to do so for a number of reasons which I won't go into here.

    Secondly, the threat of withdrawal of labour is a major one. In this country in the 70s the unions effectively appropriated the means of production from the capitalists by exactly this means. The result was a major economic downturn in my country which was only reversed when Mrs Thatcher put the capitalists back in charge. And today any sensible organisation worries about high staff turnover. New workers are surprisingly expensive, and getting more so. Even a Macdonalds burger-flipper needs to be recruited and trained.

    Thirdly, the author seems to ignore (unless I failed to notice it) the possibility that anyone has of gaining control of the "means of production" themselves. It is actually fairly easy to set up your own business with your own employees, or for a group of people to form exactly the kind of workers federation that the article proposes. Come up with a sensible plan and the capitalists happily lend you control of the means of production. Prove it effective and you get to keep control. On the other hand if you fail to make best use of the resources you are consuming then control will be taken off you and given to someone who can do better.

    Then we go onto the proposed alternative, in which democratic federations of workers own the "means of production".

    Considering this system from the point of view of the individual, I can't see any difference. Unless I want to be self-employed (with the same tradeoffs as today) I have to join one of these federations. Once in, I have to do what the currently appointed "managers" tell me to do. As an individual my vote will count for little, and if I am female a member of a minority then there is no reason to suppose that the other members of the collective will be any less bigoted towards me than a capitalist manager.

    Paul.

  • Ummm I forget which tree it is but it grows in South America, and you can run a diesil engine off of the sap from it. Just a thought.
  • by delmoi (26744) on Monday September 27, 1999 @09:35PM (#1654631) Homepage
    This is kind of interesting, not for the fact that it works, but *how* it was discovered. It seems like these people just took some random DNA known to produce plastics and stuck it in some plants.

    One of the most interesting things about 'current' (I hesitate to say modern) Genetic engineering is the almost haphazard way in witch it is done. Were pretty lucky that Genetic structure is pretty forgiving, and we aren't just completely breaking the genetic code for these plants

    If this kind of thing can be done with our current level of genetic-e knowledge, imagine what we will be able to do when we understand it all Also, I think the real benefit from work like this isn't producing plastics, but producing fuels Currently plastic waist can be broken down into the smaller polymers octane and pentane and be used for gasoline. If the same process could be used for this stuff, we could have a limitless supply of "fossil" fuels!
    "Subtle mind control? Why do all these HTML buttons say 'Submit' ?"
  • Monsatan in being-good-rather-than-evil shock!

    Well, maybe. I'd really really like to believe that this story is true and Monsanto have decided they can make a profit from providing a product that people actually want and that benefits the world in general, as opposed to their normal tactic of trying to accrue wealth through control (cf. Terminator) and corporate bullying. But it all sounds too good to be true.

    Certainly, Monsanto could really do with some good publicity about now, and this sort of "Look! Genetic engineering is a Good Thing after all!" story is exactly that.

    Just a little note from cynicsville. Personally most of my problems with GM are social rather than strictly scientific. And I'd love to see Monsanto doing something useful for a change.


    --
  • I would think that they probably *are* made of hydrocarbons, since most biological stuff on earth already is.
    "Subtle mind control? Why do all these HTML buttons say 'Submit' ?"
  • I'm probably going to come off sounding like a big time Socialist-sniper, but whatever. It happens. It's amazing that people (read: Sierra Clubbers, Greenpeace, et all) always assume that government will lead the way to more economically happy ideas and products.


    First, please do me a favor and don't assume that anybody who is a socialist is a Marxist or any other form of authoritarian.


    Second, corporations are not leading us to more economically happy ideas and products. They are also not moving our society towards a more positive future.


    Of course, neither is government. And don't get me started on the prospect of the two working together against the will of the common man, as they have always done.


    Instead, check out these links:



    The truth about Monsanto [dmoz.org]


    The *true* ideals of socialism [infoshop.org]


    Thank you, that is all...


    Michael Chisari

    mchisari@usa.net
    Michael Chisari

Some programming languages manage to absorb change, but withstand progress. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982

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