Mar 30, 2015 04:17 PM EDT
Plastic really is a great material. It's relatively easy to produce, and can have a wide range of chemical and physical properties. There is the slight issue of it taking thousands and thousands of years to break down, and also the fact that it's mainly produced from dwindling supplies of petroleum.
But humanity is is nothing if not the embodiment of the phrase "have our cake and eat it too." That is where bioplastics come in. These are materials with very similar properties to plastic, but many, if not all of the petrochemical components are replaced with biomolecules. Usually molecules like cellulose or structural proteins. Not only can these plastics be produced from a renewable resource, but they would ideally be biodegradable.
Recent work done at the University of Georgia investigated several protein-based bioplastics and found some promising results. (via EurekaAlert) They tried albumin from egg whites, whey protein, and soy protein; mixing them with conventional plasticizers like glycerol. Not only did this produce effective and biodegradable plastics but there was a bonus attribute.
Particularly prominent in the albumin-based plastic was a strong antibacterial effect. As in the bacteria simply would not grow on the material in their initial experiments. If this is fully developed, it could be a tremendous breakthrough for material science, in the field of medicine and food packaging.
Antibacterial materials like this could greatly improves infection control in hospitals and other medical settings. At the same time, it could help prevent the spread of foodborne illness in packaged goods. All of this while being able to easily degraded within a few months. Sutures made from this material could defend against infection while slowly being reabsorbed back into the body. Packaging made from egg white proteins could be used to help preserve food, and then naturally compost along with any other food waste.
Scientists still need to investigate the mechanism that causes this antibacterial effect. However, it is a big improvement on other methods for producing such materials. It is possible to potentially embed antimicrobial compounds into plastics and other materials. But there is always the possibility that bacteria could adapt around these compounds, or that they could have unintended side effects in the environment. Albumin is a very well understood protein, and so far they aren't concerned about a bioplastic derived from it having these kinds of issues. It's just luck that attempting to produce more environmentally friendly plastics, also resulted in a potential solution to another major issue.
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