Experiments conducted out of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as well as the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, led by associate professor of biological systems engineering Percival Zhang, have discovered a way to transform cellulose into starch. This new discovery indicates a potential to derive food sources from plants which are not traditionally considered to be food crops. This research could be used in the future to help solve food shortages throughout the world and provided a much more abundant ability for nations to grow food in soils that are not as nutrient rich as traditional food crops are grown on.
The process uses cellulose which lines the cell walls of plants, and also happens to be the most abundant carbohydrate found on our planet, combined with cascading enzymes to create amylose starch for consumption purposes. This is possible because both cellulose and starch contain the same basic chemical formula however their chemical bonds are different. Utilizing enzymes it is possible to break the chemical link of cellulose and reorganize the components into amylose starch. Experiments conducted by scientists at Virginia Tech using corn stover (the remnants of the corn plant after harvest) is able to convert approximately 30 percent of the plant’s cellulose into these starches while leaving the remainder to hydrolyze into glucose for production of ethanol.
Amylose starch has been known to reduce the risk of diabetes and obesity and is an excellent source of fiber as it is considered to be a linear starch which is not degenerated in the digestion process. Since every type of plant contains cellulose, these discoveries by Percival Zhang could potentially make any plant a food source for the growing population of earth. Starch is estimated to make up between 20 to 40 percent of the daily calorie intake consumed by humans and is considered one of the most necessary components of our diet. Zhang’s research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November of 2012.
Biologists predict that this process would greatly assist in utilizing excess biomass to create useful products in an environmentally friendly manner. This bioprocess currently produces no waste products, doesn’t require a lot of energy, heat or reagents and can be scaled up for mass commercial production. In addition to these benefits, the ability to use any plant to create these products is imperative as this means that starches can be derived from plants that do not require nutrient rich top soil, heavy fertilizers, abundant water and pesticides. The name coined for this bioprocess is “simultaneous enzymatic biotransformation and microbial fermentation” and utilizes magnetic forces to extract the enzymes used in the process to recycle for reuse.
Along with its potential for food production, this research can also be used for a number of other environmentally friendly products. One predicted use for this process could be to create biodegradable food packaging to help reduce the pollution created from shipping and storing foods. It is also expected to help in the storage and transportation for high-density hydrogen using containers made out of the materials created in this process.
This study was a joint collaboration between biologist Percival Zhang from Virginia Tech and scholar Hongge Chen to conceive the model for biotransformation while most of the research was conducted Chun You, a native of China attending Virginia Tech.
Tags: agriculture, biologists, engineers