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Combing our fine city streets, we've all been accosted by a fluttering plastic bag chucked out of a car by some littering schmuck and thought: "Yuck." Well get this: A pair of Mizzou plant scientists envisions much of Missouri covered in plastic that blows in the wind. Researchers Brian Mooney and Douglas Randall are looking into growing plastic along the fringes of Missouri farmland.

"Don't tell me we're going to see corn fields surrounded by borders of plastic bags," I said to Mooney last week by telephone. "No, no," he replied. "You don't change the look of the plant you want to use. You just convince it to make plastic. The plant will take sunlight and water, and instead of making starch, like it normally would, it will make plastic." Mooney says that to "convince" the plant, they must mate it with genes from a bacterium that knows how to produce plastic.

Mooney and Randall have in mind for the project a plant called switchgrass, a prairie grass native to the Midwest (and much of North America). The scientists think crop and livestock farmers across Missouri could plant the plastic-growing grass around their existing fields and create an additional revenue stream.

Apparently the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis and a private company in Boston are already at work on growing plastic in plants, but Mooney and Randall believe they've patented a couple mechanisms that ramp up the growing process. In the end, the biodegradable plastic could be used in a diverse array of goodies, including soda bottles, disposable razors, silverware and, yes, the grocery bags you so often come across fluttering in the wind. 

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September 23, 2020

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