Biopolymers are a class of polymers produced by living organisms. Starch, proteins and peptides, DNA, and RNA are all examples of biopolymers, in which the monomer units, respectively, are sugars, amino acids, and nucleic acids.
Biopolymers versus polymers
A major but defining difference between polymers and biopolymers can be found in their structures. Polymers, including biopolymers, are made of repetitive units called monomers. Biopolymers inherently have a well defined structure: The exact chemical composition and the sequence in which these units are arranged is called the primary structure. Many biopolymers spontaneously fold into characteristic compact shapes (see also "protein folding" as well as secondary structure and tertiary structure), which determine their biological functions and depend in a complicated way on their primary structures. Structural biology is the study of the structural properties of the biopolymers. In contrast most synthetic polymers have much simpler and more random (or stochastic) structures. This fact leads to a molecular mass distribution that is missing in biopolymers. In fact, as their synthesis is controlled by a template directed process in most in vivo systems all biopolymers of a type (say one specific protein) are all alike: they all contain the same sequence and number of monomers and thus all have the same mass. This phenomenon is called monodispersity in contrast to the polydispersity encountered in polymers. As a result biopolymers have a polydispersity index of 1.
Conventions and nomenclature
The convention for a polypeptide is to list its constituent amino acid residues as they occur from the amino terminus to the carboxylic acid terminus. The amino acid residues are always joined by peptide bonds. Protein, though used colloquially to refer to any polypeptide, refers to larger or fully functional forms and can consist of several polypeptide chains as well as single chains. Proteins can also be modified to include non-peptide components, such as saccharide chains and lipids.
The convention for a nucleic acid sequence is to list the nucleotides as they occur from the 5' end to the 3' end of the polymer chain, where 5' and 3' refer to the numbering of carbons around the ribose ring which participate in forming the phosphate diester linkages of the chain. Such a sequence is called the primary structure of the biopolymer.
Sugar-based biopolymers are often difficult with regards to convention. Sugar polymers can be linear or branched are typically joined with glycosidic bonds. However, the exact placement of the linkage can vary and the orientation of the linking functional groups is also important, resulting in α- and β-glycosidic bonds with numbering definitive of the linking carbons' location in the ring. In addition, many saccharide units can undergo various chemical modification, such as amination, and can even form parts of other molecules, such as glycoproteins.
There are a number of biophysical techniques for determining sequence information. Protein sequence can be determined by Edman degradation, in which the N-terminal residues are hydrolyzed from the chain one at a time, derivatized, and then identified. Mass spectrometer techniques can also be used. Nucleic acid sequence can be determined using gel electrophoresis and capillary electrophoresis. Lastly, mechanical properties of these biopolymers can often be measured using optical tweezers or atomic force microscopy.
Biopolymers as materials
Some biopolymers- such as polylactic acid, naturally occurring zein, and poly-3-hydroxybutyrate can be used as plastics, replacing the need for polystyrene or polyethylene based plastics.
Some plastics are now referred to as being 'degradable', 'oxy-degradable' or 'UV-degradable'. This means that they break down when exposed to light or air, but these plastics are still primarily (as much as 98 per cent) oil-based and are not currently certified as 'biodegradable' under the European Union directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste (94/62/EC). Biopolymers, however, will break down and some are suitable for domestic composting.
Biopolymers as Packaging
Biopolymers (also called renewable polymers) are produced from biomass for use in the packaging industry. Biomass comes from crops such as sugar beet, potatoes or wheat: when used to produce biopolymers, these are classified as non food crops. These can be converted in the following pathways:
Sugar beet > Glyconic acid > Polyglonic acid
Starch > (fermentation) > Lactic acid > Polylactic acid (PLA)
Biomass > (fermentation) > Bioethanol > Ethene > Polyethylene
Many types of packaging can be made from biopolymers: food trays, blown starch pellets for shipping fragile goods, thin films for wrapping.
Biopolymers are renewable, sustainable, and can be carbon neutral
Biopolymers are renewable, because they are made from plant materials which can be grown year on year indefinitely. These plant materials come from agricultural non food crops. Therefore, the use of biopolymers would create a sustainable industry. In contrast, the feedstocks for polymers derived from petrochemicals will eventually run out. In addition, biopolymers have the potential to cut carbon emissions and reduce CO2 quantities in the atmosphere: this is because the CO2 released when they degrade can be reabsorbed by crops grown to replace them: this makes them close to carbon neutral.
Biopolymers are biodegradable, and some are also compostable
Some biopolymers are biodegradable: they are broken down into CO2 and water by microorganisms. In addition, some of these biodegradable biopolymers are compostable: they can be put into an industrial composting process and will break down by 90% within 6 months. Biopolymers that do this can be marked with a 'compostable' symbol, under European Standard EN 13432 (2000). Packaging marked with this symbol can be put into industrial composting processes and will break down within 6 months (or less). An example of a compostable polymer is PLA film under 20μm thick: films which are thicker than that do not qualify as compostable, even though they are biodegradable. A home composting logo may soon be established: this will enable consumers to dispose of packaging directly onto their own compost heap. The standards for such a home composting logo have not yet been developed.
- Condensation polymers
- DNA sequence
- Worm-like chain
- Non food crops
- National Non Food Crops Centre
- European Bioplastics
- Biopolymer.net : Links to organisations, companies and everything related to biopolymers/bioplastics.
- www.voltrion.com Ionized Lubricant concentrates: Biopolymers made using an electro ionization process.
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