FRIENDLY MICROBES PRODUCE PLASTICS

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PENANG, 30 August 2013 – It was a big step forward in maximising the use of crude palm kernel oil (CPKO) and in the process, deriving a biodegradable plastic from it rather than the conventional dependence on petroleum-based plastics.

Professor K. Sudesh Kumar from the School of Biological Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) presented his professorial appointment public lecture series kept his audience enthralled with his findings on the production of polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), an environmental friendly thermoplastic material, by microbes.

He explained that the microbes can be found anywhere such as in the soil and water. They make and store PHA as a form of food-reserve and the key enzyme involved in the making of PHA is called PHA synthase.

His team found a particularly interesting microbe at the Telaga Air Tujuh in Pulau Langkawi and the gene encoding for the PHA synthase enzyme was cloned and characterized.

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“As a result of that genetic intervention, the PHA synthase enzyme from the microbe Chromobacterium sp. USM2 was found to be the most active enzyme in the world, among all other PHA synthase enzymes known to date,” Sudesh said.

The CPKO is converted into granules of PHA within the microbe and to isolate the PHA is normally an expensive and complicated process.

To overcome these setbacks, Sudesh pointed out that the biological purification process was most practical and this is by freeze drying the microbes before feeding the chunks to mice which later defecate white pellets of PHA; the PHA can then be easily purified and processed into plastic resin.

One of the uses of such biodegradable plastic, besides the production of biodegradable plastic bags and facial oil absorption paper, is to incorporate fertiliser into it, enabling the fertiliser to be slowly released into the soil as the plastic degrades over a period of time.

In 1991, Sudesh received his Bachelor degree in Zoology from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Masters in Biotechnology from Universiti Malaya three years later.

He then pursued his PhD with a scholarship from Japan at the Saitama University in 1995 after undergoing an intensive six-month course in the Japanese language at Chiba University.

It was at the Saitama University that Sudesh ventured into the field of bioplastic microbes under the supervision of the renowned Professor Dr Yoshiharu Doi, obtaining his PhD in 1999.

He then obtained the Special Postdoctoral Fellow from RIKEN, a well-known research institute in Japan.

He has, to date, published more than 100 refereed articles, peer reviewed articles, books, book chapters, and another 100 abstracts for local and international seminars and conferences. Over the years he had won numerous awards for his scientific efforts, including Excellent Scientist in 2005 by the Ministry of Higher Education.

Also present at the talk were Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dato’ Dr. Ahmad Shukri Mustapa Kamal; and the Dean of the School of Biological Sciences, Assoc. Professor Dr. Ahmad Sofiman Othman. - Text: Yong Check Yoon / Photo: Yong Check Yoon / Mohd Fairus Md Isa

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