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Cambridge company developing biodegradable plastic that grows from the ground

Dawit Abreham, a greenhouse research assistant at Metabolix in Cambridge, checked the height of genetically modified switchgrass.
Dawit Abreham, a greenhouse research assistant at Metabolix in Cambridge, checked the height of genetically modified switchgrass.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

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The plants growing in a greenhouse on Erie Street in Cambridge bear neither flower nor fruit and, in truth, are downright homely. Their yield is visible only under a microscope, which reveals in unruly blades of switchgrass a molecule that could one day form the plastics we use in our everyday lives.

“It’s a matter of changing the genetic makeup of the plant so that it takes carbon and turns those plants into a plastics factory,” said Rick Eno, chief executive of Metabolix, a local company that’s essentially trying to grow shopping bags and water bottles out of the ground.

Last month, Metabolix received a patent for its method of supercharging production of polyhydroxybutyrate, or PHB, a raw material for plastic production, in switchgrass.

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