In a world first, scientists have discovered two genes that could allow crops to produce the raw materials for industrial chemicals and polymers, such as plastics.
When introduced into our major oilseed crops, the two genes could see the plants operating as mini-factories. This offers an important alternative to petrochemical oils, according to Allan Green of CSIRO Plant Industry.
Speaking on behalf of the Australian, Swedish and English team which made the discovery, Dr Green said "the possibilities are immense".
"The chemicals we need for detergents, nylon, glue, lubricants and plastics are currently produced from non-renewable petroleum or by chemical processing of vegetable oils. We have identified genes from non-cultivated wild species which do the processing inside the plant — no chemical processing and no polluting waste," he said.
Yielding more fatty acids
"The isolation of the two genes means that we have accomplished the first important step toward producing oilseeds with high yields of important fatty acids," said Dr Green
One gene produces an enzyme responsible for creating epoxy fatty acids, major components in the production of epoxy resins, used for such products as Araldite.
The other gene is responsible for a different enzyme which produces acetylenic fatty acids, important for the synthesis of specialty chemicals, high-quality surface coatings and lubricants.
The next step is to introduce other genes which help plants produce higher commercially-viable concentrations of these compounds.
"Farmers can look forward to receiving much higher returns for growing these specialty crops, as the value of epoxy oils is almost three times that of ordinary vegetable oils."
"This could ultimately be a real opportunity for farmers," said Dr Green, who added that there is still a lot more work to be done before plants producing high levels of these fatty acids are widely available.
Contact: Dr Allan Green 02 6246 5154