Biodegradable plastic from yeast and oil

A new technique using yeast and fatty acids from plant oils produces a bioplastic that is strong, highly ductile, and completely biodegradable.

The findings are reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Like all plastics, the new material is a polymer—a large molecule comprised of smaller, repeating units called monomers. In this case, the monomer itself is relatively new. The units are called omega-hydroxyfatty acids, and when strung together to form a polymer, they can produce a biologically friendly plastic.

Until now, omega-hydroxyfatty acids were difficult and expensive to produce using traditional methods, prohibiting their widespread use.

Richard Gross, professor of chemical and biological science at New York University, produced the monomer in a first-of-its-kind fermentation process—a fairly quick, low-cost method. The monomer is then polymerized to form a uniquely ductile, strong natural plastic that biodegrades completely in soil.

Gross and his team devised a new way to produce these monomers by using a genetically modified strain of Candida tropicalis, one of the many types of yeast that live harmlessly in humans and animals. The engineered yeast is capable of converting fatty acids of plant oils into large quantities of omega-hydroxyfatty acids.

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