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by Melody M. Aguiba
22-January-2007 Manila Bulletin

A bioplastic using the organism "bacillus megaterium" being patented by a Filipino scientist holds the potential of creating an integrated plastics industry particularly in niche products like medical and orthopedic implants which are fully import-dependent.

While still needing some three years of extensive product improvement, the bioplastic or polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) was found by Dr. Gloria Despacio-Reyes to have plastic-like properties of PHA (polyhydroxy alkanoates) as produced by microorganisms under certain growth conditions.

And that may have a lasting impact on the domestic plastics industry as world plastics consumption is now at 180 million metric tons (MT) and is seen to shoot up to 258 million MT by 2010.

An ultimate advantage of the bioplastic is its total biodegradability or nature-friendliness which makes the product a technology of choice for comprehensive development globally even if the Philippines is now a mere follower of the trend. It can be significantly cheaper too compared to depleting fossil fuel-based plastics and other bioplastics whose growing medium require more chemical components— about 10 ingredients such as glucose and nitrogen—as against this bacillus megaterium (BM).

"It’s a biodegradable organism (found in Philippine soil) that has been locally-isolated. It’s abundant in the Philippines and grows with coconut water so it can be very cheap. It’s just unfortunate that we’re the only country now in the ASEAN that has no on-going research on PHB when it’s a booming thing because of its biodegradability," said Dr. Gloria Despacio-Reyes in an interview.

This technology produces PHB has a cycle of three days which makes it more cost-effective than other bioplastic materials like "ralstonin eutropha" whose products are harvested over up to five day.

An awardee of the Philippine Emerging Start-up Open (PESO), Reyes earlier worked on PHB with the Philippine Council for Advanced Science and Technology Research and Development (PCASTRD) and the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) Biotechnology Center. Her association with the National Institute of Health in the US for an assistance on her Molecular Biology doctorate at UPLB intensified her interest in bioplastics.

Pioneering Philippine biotechnology consultancy agency Hybridigm Consulting Inc. (HCI) may be scouting for an angel investor for the PHB research, although Ateneo de Manila University (with which Reyes now works and which has been lately inclined to take aggressive steps toward scientific discoveries) may be a staging ground for it.

Reyes specifically eyes the PHB in the production of high-end medical devices such as (body parts) implants as the organism has biocompatibility with the human tissue.

"We have in our blood the breakdown molecules so that it won’t have toxic reactions" unlike other materials for implants which would require other expensive compatibility-reaction tests with the human functions, said Reyes. "It involves fast regeneration of the tissues, it heals fast because it’s a normal component."

More research institutions have embarked on the development of bioplastics as long-term projections see this as the future plastic material.

Car-maker Toyota estimated that 20 percent of world’s plastics will be made of bioplastics by 2020. Procter and Gamble and Mitsubishi are into it too.

Authorities see an increase in the use of bioplastics by one to five percent yearly as country-signatories of the Kyoto Protocol have been encouraging entities to shift to raw materials that do not cause emission of greenhouse gases which further boost bioplastics research.

"We like to select a market segment that have products two times more expensive (than other products). European companies will pay four pounds per kilo of bioplastics. Even if we produce it at $ 4, we’ll already make a good profit," she said.

For the three-year research that should link up to pilot production scale, Reyes seeks to develop a lower melting temperature for the bioplastic which will not only indirectly bring down cost but also make the plastic delay decomposition and more flexible for varied applications. The research will genetically engineer a strain that will have a co-polymer with medium chain length particularly for structured, food packaging materials; disposables (diapers, napkins); tissue repair; vascular, surgical, orthopedic implants; ingredient for antibiotics and vitamins; and material for nanotechnology.

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