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  • Writer's pictureD. Randall Faro


      There are things we might not know that we’re glad to learn are happening. Stay with me even though the next paragraph might need a chemistry PhD to decipher.


      I’m guessing 99.6% of you have never heard of polyhydroxyalkanoate (referred to as the much easier to type and pronounce PHA). The most prominent commercially available PHAs are poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB), poly-3-hydroxybutyrate-co-4-hydroxybutyrate (P(3-HB-co-4-HB)), poly-3-hydroxybutyrate-co-valerate (PHBV), and polyhydroxybutyrate-co-hexanoate (PHBH). PHAs have found applications in the form of packaging materials like boxes, coating, fibers and foam materials, biofuels, medical implants, and drug delivery carriers . . . and straws.

      Enter marine researchers Kyle Pisano and Kirk Dotson of Nova Southeastern University/


      Although most people (99.4%?) have never personally viewed a coral reef underwater, a hefty percentage of learned folk know that rising ocean temperatures spell imminent danger to them. What to do? Kyle and Kirk are working on it.


      Protecting the underwater ecosystem that maintains upwards of 25% of all marine species is not easy. Even more challenging is making sure that coral grown in a laboratory and placed into the ocean doesn’t become expensive fish food. One problem is that predators like parrot fish attempt to bite and destroy the newly transplanted coral in areas like South Florida, leaving them with less than a 40% survival rate. Parrot fish really, really enjoy biting newly transplanted coral, Pisano reports. They treat it kind of like popcorn. Fortunately the fish eventually lose interest in the coral as it matures, but scientists need to protect the coral in the meantime.


      Stainless steel and PVC pipe barriers have been set up around transplanted coral in the past, but those cages needed to be cleaned of algae growth and eventually removed. Pisano came up with the idea of a protective barrier that would eventually dissolve, eliminating the need to maintain or remove it. He and Dotson developed the Coral Fort, a small biodegradable cage that’s made in part with drinking straws that boosts the survival rate of transplanted coral to over 90%. Over time, and after the Parrot fish lose interest, the straws biodegrade, leaving only water and carbon dioxide. And the straws are made of, guess what: PHAs.  


      The story above is hopeful news for the planet . . . since as the oceans go, Earth goes. Contrary to those who pooh-pooh advanced education and the sciences, we can rejoice that folks like Pisana and Dotson know that the chemical formula for poly(3-hydroxyvalerate) is R¼C2H5. And know what to do with it.

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