'Prof. Plastic' alter ego: Arabidopsis thaliana

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On its own Arabidopsis thaliana, commonly referred to as “wall cress,” is just a small flowering plant. But after researchers at the University of Missouri introduced three bacterial enzymes, it produced a flexible, moldable plastic called polyhdroxybutyrate-co-polyhydroxyvalerate, or PHBV.

A non-polluting, renewable plastic, PHBV can be used in products ranging from grocery bags to disposable razors; and when all is said and done, bacteria in soil can naturally break it down into water and carbon dioxide. Its properties are not unlike the biodegrable plastic recently promoted as an alternative to regular petroleum-based plastics, but now producers won’t have to compete for corn or soybeans, whose starch and protein previously made the plastic and, between food consumption and biofuel production, are already stretched too thin.

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To produce higher quantities of PHBV, researchers have already successfully transferred the biologically engineered reaction — wherein bacterial enzymes combine with the plants own PHBV chemical precursors — to other plants like switchgrass. However, without Arabidopsis thaliana the discovery may have never been made, and for that reason, this little mustard plant made the list.

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