Metabolix completes field trial of genetically-engineered tobacco

By Lisa Gibson
Posted November 5, 2009, at 3:14 p.m. CST

Massachusetts-based Metabolix Inc. recently completed a field trial of a bioplastic-producing tobacco crop, helping lay the groundwork for planning and permitting of other biomass crop field trials for bioplastics.

The tobacco in the 0.8-acre field trial was genetically engineered to express polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) biobased polymers. The experiment is not a commercial opportunity for the company, but was used to validate and learn more about processes for future work in plant-based programs with nonfood crops such as switchgrass, oilseeds and sugarcane, according to the company. Metabolix is a bioscience company focused on providing sustainable solutions to manufacture plastics, chemicals and energy.

The trial provided valuable data relating to biopolymer production, with the best plants producing 3 percent to 5 percent PHA, according to Metabolix. In comparison, Metabolix has achieved a PHA yield of 3.72 percent dry weight PHA in switchgrass leaves and 1.23 percent dry weight in the plant as a whole, according to Matt Lindberg, a communications representative for the company. Research aims to achieve 7.5 percent dry weight from the plant, a benchmark that would be economic for full-scale commercial production, he added. The bioplastic is grown directly within the crop and extracted later through a proprietary process, Lindberg said.

Metabolix obtained necessary permits from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in March of this year and completed its tobacco field trial in October. Information regarding the cost of the project is not available, Lindberg said.

In a quest to develop crop technologies for the coproduction of biobased plastics, chemicals and energy from nonfood energy crops, Metabolix is taking a systems approach, from gene to end product, according to the company. It is developing and commercializing Mirel, a family of bioplastics and biodegradable alternatives to many petroleum-based plastics.