Plastic-Producing Potato Sites Vandalized

Potatoes have been genetically modified to produce cyanophycin for biodegradable plastics
Potatoes have been genetically modified to produce cyanophycin for biodegradable plastics.

On the nights of July 9 and 11, masked attackers vandalized two experimental sites in Germany growing genetically modified wheat and potatoes. The potatoes were producing a raw material in plastic manufacturing.

As Gretchen Vogel reports in ScienceInsider:

Kerstin Schmidt, head of Biovativ, the company that owns the test plots in Gross Lüsewitz, told German media that the company would continue its work. Politicians across the political spectrum have condemned the attacks, but the local Green party in Rostock went ahead with a long-planned anti-GM demonstration at the Gross Lüsewitz test site on Monday. A speaker for the local party said she could “understand but not support” the attacks.

The attackers, based on a report at the GMO Safety website, sponsored by the German government, were organized in overpowering the guards:

In one case, the attackers were armed with bats and pepper spray; in another they took the guard’s mobile phone, stabbed his car tyres and blinded him with headlights.

The site targeted by the attackers included potatoes that were created to produce cyanophycin. Cyanophycin is a amino acid polymer.

The potatoes were announced in 2009 as a way to produce biodegradable plastics from renewable materials. The potato cyanophycin is supposed to be an alternative to petroleum-based plastics. They have been optimized to produce large quantities of the compound without harming the plants.

According to the website, GMO Safety, cyanophycin is a protein produced by cyanobacteria and some other bacteria. One component of cyanophycin is polyaspartate, which can be used as a biodegradable plastic:

It is possible to produce such biodegradable polymers (biopolymers) in plants, using the plant as a kind of bioreactor. Plants could therefore act as renewable raw materials supplying substitutes for petroleum-based plastics that are not biodegradable, e.g. acrylic-acid-based polyacrylates.

Cyanophycin also comes with another valuable compound, the amino acid arginine, which improves animal health when fed to livestock.

The advantage of using potatoes to make cyanophycin instead of genetically modified bacteria is that cyanophycin can be produced as an inexpensive byproduct. Potatoes grown for starch production can be used to produce cyanophycin at the same time, so it’s a two-for-one deal from one plot of arable land.

The cyanophycin-producing potatoes were created by inserting genes from cyanobacteria into the potatoes’ genetic makeup. At the time of the attacks, researchers were testing the genetically modified potato plants to see how viable they were as a safe and effective way to produce biodegradable plastics.

Source: “Anti-GM Attacks Destroy German Test Plots,” ScienceInsider, 07/15/11
Image by Ninjatacoshell, released into the public domain, and used under Fair Use: Reporting.

Rajendrani "Raj" Mukhopadhyay is a science writer and editor who contributes news stories and feature articles on scientific advances to a variety of magazines. Raj holds Ph.D. in biophysics from Johns Hopkins University.