Once plastic products are used and discarded, they will linger in the ocean, gathering in large "garbage dumps" and endangering marine life. A potential solution, a biodegradable polymer called polylactic acid (PLA), has not fully fulfilled its promise so far, and there is almost no sign of decomposition once in sea water. In a new study in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, researchers set out to solve this problem by adding RNA-inspired breakpoints to polymers.
It is estimated that traditional plastic may take hundreds of years to decompose in the ocean, but no one really knows how long it will continue to be chaotic in the ocean. An alternative material, PLA, can be made from natural sources, such as corn and potato starch. It can be quickly degraded under certain conditions, such as composting, it is usually used for compostable tableware and tableware. However, studies on PLA in seawater and soil found no obvious signs of degradation after at least three years.
Researchers have developed several methods for making PLA that degrade faster, but these methods have disadvantages, such as changing the properties of the material. It turns out that water can easily break down biological molecular RNA, thanks to a process called transesterification. Therefore, drawing inspiration from this process, Frederik Wurm and colleagues hope to introduce chemical groups into PLA to make the polymer easier to decompose in the ocean.
The researchers added breakpoints to PLA during its synthesis by adding transesterification sites similar to those found in RNA. They have created different versions of modified PLA that contain enough of these sites to account for 3-15% of the polymer. In the experiment, they immersed the new PLA film in artificial seawater and measured the change in film weight and the release of PLA degradation product lactic acid. The polymer with the highest breaking point concentration of 15% was completely decomposed into lactic acid after two weeks. They calculated that lower concentrations of polymers will take longer, and some may take up to several years.
These results indicate that the degradation rate can be adjusted according to the number of breaking points in the material. The researchers said that potential applications are not limited to PLA. They write that adding breaking points may accelerate the decomposition of other plastic polymers and become a key strategy to prevent further marine pollution.
Rheinberger, T., etc. (2021) RNA inspired and accelerated degradation of polylactic acid in seawater. Journal of the American Chemical Society. doi.org/10.1021/jacs.1c07508.
Tags: education, molecules, pollution, polymers, potato, research, RNA
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