In New York state, scientists from Brookhaven National Laboratory studying the biochemistry of plant cell walls have identified an enzyme that could turn woody poplar trees into a source for producing a major industrial chemical. The research, just published in Nature Plants, could lead to a new sustainable pathway for making “p-hydroxybenzoic acid,” a chemical building block currently derived from fossil fuels, in plant biomass.
The global market value of p-hydroxybenzoic acid stood at U.S. $59 million in 2020 and is projected to reach $80 million by 2026. But the current process for making this important chemical relies on petrochemicals. Its synthesis requires harsh reaction conditions (high temperature and high pressure) and has negative environmental impacts. Finding an economical and sustainable way to make p-hydroxybenzoic acid in plants could help mitigate environmental impacts and contribute to an emerging bioeconomy.