Press release from November 13th, 2008
Acrylic glass made of sugar
New enzyme could revolutionise production of plastics
Duisburg/Leipzig. In future, polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA for
short) - better known as acrylic glass - could be made from natural raw
materials such as sugars, alcohols or fatty acids. PMMA is manufactured
by polymerising methyl methacrylate (MMA). In a bacterial strain,
scientists at the University of Duisburg-Essen and the Helmholtz Centre
for Environmental Research (UFZ) have found an enzyme which could be
used for the biotechnological production of a precursor of MMA.
Compared with the previous chemical production process, a
biotechnological process is far more environmentally friendly.
Dr. Thore Rohwerder (left) from the
University of Duisburg-Essen and his mentor Dr. Roland Müller (right)
from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), Department
of Environmental Microbiology in the laboratory.
Photo: Klaus-D. Sonntag/fotoplusdesign
download as jpg (1.6 MB)
Dr Thore Rohwerder has been nominated as one of three candidates for the European Evonik research award for his
discovery. The competition is overseen by Dr Arend Oetker, president of the Stifterverband für die Deutsche
Wissenschaft (Association of Donors to German Science). The aim of the award is to encourage young researchers
to risk taking the step from the laboratory into business. The topic of the 2008 Evonik research award is "White
Biotechnology" (industrial biotechnology). The Science-to-Business Award worth EUR 100,000 was given to Dr. Paul
Dalby from the University College London on November 12th, 2008 in Berlin. Dalby’s method for combining enzymes and
customizing them for new tasks convinced the international jury.
The newly enzyme discovered by Dr. Thore Rohwerder und Dr. Roland H.
Müller, called 2-hydroxyisobutyryl-CoA mutase, makes it possible to
turn a linear C4 carbon structure into a branched one. Compounds of
this type are precursors of MMA. Parent compounds may of course include
intermediate products from the petrochemical industry. The
revolutionary aspect, however, is that this enzyme, integrated into
metabolically appropriate microorganisms, can also transform sugars and
other natural compounds into the products desired. Until now, the only
way to produce this precursor - 2-hydroxyisobutyrate (2-HIBA) - was a
purely chemical process based on petrochemical raw materials. The
chemicals industry worldwide is searching for suitable biological
processes, so that in future, renewable raw materials can also be used
as a basis for MMA synthesis. The mutase presented here provides the
solution: an enzyme which shifts a functional group from one position
to another within a molecule. While in a post-doc position at the UFZ’s
Department of Environmental Microbiology, Dr Thore Rohwerder and his
mentor Dr Roland H. Müller discovered the enzyme in a newly isolated
bacterial strain they found while searching for bacteria to break down
the pollutant MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether).
The reason attributed by the awards judges to the industrial
importance of the discovery was that altogether, in the medium to long
term, up to ten percent of today’s demand for MMA could feasibly be
produced by biotechnological means. The world market is over 3 million
tonnes / 4 billion euro. It will take about four years to establish the
bacterial system in a functioning technological process (pilot plant).
In about ten years, a technological process is then conceivable, with
an annual turnover of 150 to 400 million euro.
PMMA is a synthetic plastic developed in 1928 and today produced in
great quantities. PMMA is often known colloquially as acrylic glass, as
it is mainly used as a shatterproof, lightweight alternative to glass -
for example, in protective goggles or vehicle lights. PMMA has many
applications, including prosthetics, paints and adhesives. It is also
sold under the brand names "Plexiglas®"
(Evonik) and "Altuglas" (Arkema). In the GDR, names used for this
plastic included "O-Glas" (for "organic glass") or "Piacryl" (named
after the old producer in the GDR, Piesteritz nitrogen works near
Wittenberg). The plastic is fragile, but very UV-resistant and thus
weatherproof. Its high translucency and low weight mean that acrylic
glass has to some extent replaced traditional glass. It was used for
the roof of the Olympic stadium in Munich as far back as 1970. Experts
predict that the demand for acrylic glass will grow even more in future
- for example, for photovoltaic units.
Müller RH, Rohwerder T, Harms H (2008). Degradation of fuel
oxygenates and their main intermediates by Aquincola tertiaricarbonis
L108. Microbiology 154:1414-1421
Rohwerder T, Breuer U, Benndorf D, Lechner U, Müller RH (2006). The
alkyl tert-butyl ether intermediate 2-hydroxyisobutyrate is degraded
via a novel cobalamin-dependent mutase pathway. APPL. ENVIRON.
MICROBIOL. 72 (6): 4128-4135.
Dr. Thore Rohwerder
University of Duisburg-Essen
Phone +49 203 379 1589
Dr. Thore Rohwerder
Dr. Roland H. Müller
Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)
Phone +49 341 235 1337
Dr. Roland H. Müller
Helmholtz-Zentrum für Umweltforschung (UFZ)
Phone +49 341 235 1269