Team creates potential food source from non-food plants

Apr 16, 2013
Virginia Tech research team creates potential food source from non-food plants
Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, led a team researchers that has succeeded in transforming cellulose into starch, a process that has the potential to provide a previously untapped nutrient source from plants not traditionally though of as food crops. Credit: Virginia Tech

A team of Virginia Tech researchers has succeeded in transforming cellulose into starch, a process that has the potential to provide a previously untapped nutrient source from plants not traditionally thought of as food crops.

Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering, led a team of researchers in the project that could help feed a growing that is estimated to swell to 9 billion by 2050. Starch is one of the most important components of the human diet and provides 20-40 percent of our daily caloric intake.

The research was published this week in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cellulose is the supporting material in and is the most common carbohydrate on earth. This new development opens the door to the potential that food could be created from any plant, reducing the need for crops to be grown on valuable land that requires fertilizers, pesticides, and large amounts of water. The type of starch that Zhang's team produced is amylose, a linear resistant starch that is not broken down in the digestion process and acts as a good source of dietary fiber. It has been proven to decrease the risk of obesity and diabetes.

This discovery holds promise on many fronts beyond food systems.

"Besides serving as a food source, the starch can be used in the manufacture of edible, clear films for biodegradable ," Zhang said. "It can even serve as a high-density carrier that could solve problems related to hydrogen storage and distribution."

Zhang used a novel process involving cascading enzymes to transform cellulose into amylose starch.

"Cellulose and starch have the same chemical formula," Zhang said. "The difference is in their chemical linkages. Our idea is to use an enzyme cascade to break up the bonds in cellulose, enabling their reconfiguration as starch."

The new approach takes cellulose from non-food plant material, such as corn stover, converts about 30% to amylose, and hydrolyzes the remainder to glucose suitable for ethanol production. Corn stover consists of the stem, leaves, and husk of the corn plant remaining after ears of corn are harvested. However, the process works with cellulose from any plant.

This bioprocess called "simultaneous enzymatic biotransformation and microbial fermentation" is easy to scale up for commercial production. It is environmentally friendly because it does not require expensive equipment, heat, or chemical reagents, and does not generate any waste. The key enzymes immobilized on the magnetic nanoparticles can easily be recycled using a magnetic force.

Zhang designed the experiments and conceived the cellulose-to-starch concept. Zhang and Virginia Tech visiting scholar Hongge Chen are the inventors of the cellulose-to-starch biotransformation, which is covered under a provisional patent application. Chun You, a postdoctoral researcher from China at Virginia Tech, and Chen conducted most of the research work.

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grondilu
not rated yet Apr 16, 2013
Sounds too good to be true.
kochevnik
3 / 5 (2) Apr 16, 2013
Starch is energy storage, not nutrient storage
Lurker2358
1 / 5 (2) Apr 16, 2013
Corn stover consists of the stem, leaves, and husk of the corn plant remaining after ears of corn are harvested. However, the process works with cellulose from any plant.


This is already used in animal feed, which is a 100% natural way to convert cellulose to a food stuff which is useful to humans, namely the proteins in meat.

If you're looking for a higher energy to growing area ratio, then doesn't it make more sense to grow "super foods" which are dense in both energy and nutrients, such as sweet potatoes and carrots? Those can be grown on hill sides or other less controlled areas, or hydroponically much easier than corn. In fact, growing root crops on a hillside is almost ideal, because it allows you to get enough water from rain, but have enough drainage to avoid water-logging and rot.

Meh, probably just some lab rat scientist creating a problem that doesn't actually exist.
Lurker2358
1 / 5 (1) Apr 16, 2013
Ok, look at it this way. It's not going to be something revolutionary, IMO.

We already do something like this with cow bones to make gelatin, but gelatin is not a staple food source. It's actually used more in like capsules for oral drugs and other such things.

Maybe it could be mixed into flours and batters at like 5 to 20% ratios to decrease any flavor changes, while stretching the value of the corn crop. Farmers will be pleased, if they can get a few more dollars out of the field, but only if the products actually sell. Also, he needs to find a starch which actually has food value, not just "dietary fiber" (insert "regulates turd size" here,) value.

I guess if you could do this in your garage, you could just mow the lawn and collect the grass clippings, and end up making some number of pounds of food out of it.
Twin
2.5 / 5 (2) Apr 16, 2013
Don't mushrooms convert cellulose into carbohydrates such as glucose?
NoTennisNow
1 / 5 (1) Apr 16, 2013
But the starch is not digestable, it is just a filler (fiber), so what's the net benefit?

Also, there is a big push for an enzyme that can economically break down cellulose (corn stover and other cellulouse containing compounds) into fermentable sugars for alcohol and other energy/chemical feedstocks).

btw I am a chemical engineer with energy experience.
ryggesogn2
3.4 / 5 (5) Apr 16, 2013
Fermented, chopped corn plants, or alfalfa or sorghum, called silage, is fed to cattle over winter.
alfie_null
1 / 5 (1) Apr 17, 2013
Corn stover consists of the stem, leaves, and husk of the corn plant remaining after ears of corn are harvested. However, the process works with cellulose from any plant.


This is already used in animal feed, which is a 100% natural way to convert cellulose to a food stuff which is useful to humans, namely the proteins in meat.

Should be needless to say making meat is an stunningly inefficient process. You like numbers? Figure out how much land we would need if we were to feed the world hamburgers. And even that presumes availability of lots of cultivated corn (not an option in much of the world).
Porgie
1 / 5 (1) Apr 19, 2013
Keep in mind that starch is not all that is needed for a reasonable diet. It might keep you alive, but it won't keep you healthy. this is a great start and brilliant work. I'm hoping for a replicator.
Gigel
not rated yet Apr 22, 2013
Keep in mind that starch is not all that is needed for a reasonable diet. It might keep you alive, but it won't keep you healthy. this is a great start and brilliant work. I'm hoping for a replicator.

It's not far from it anyway. Just reduce starch to glucose and grow yeasts on it. Yeasts contain a lot of proteins, so you end up with almost all the human body requires.

I'm curious how economical the above process is.
neversaidit
not rated yet May 17, 2013
Should be needless to say making meat is an stunningly inefficient process. You like numbers? Figure out how much land we would need if we were to feed the world hamburgers. And even that presumes availability of lots of cultivated corn (not an option in much of the world).

not all soil is good for crops. cows *should* feed on grass.

the problem isn't feeding 9bn people. the problem is getting that number down to sustainable levels.
barakn
not rated yet May 23, 2013
But the starch is not digestable, it is just a filler (fiber), so what's the net benefit?

Also, there is a big push for an enzyme that can economically break down cellulose (corn stover and other cellulouse containing compounds) into fermentable sugars for alcohol and other energy/chemical feedstocks).

btw I am a chemical engineer with energy experience.

A real chemical engineer wouldn't have starch is not "digestable" [sic], nor confused it with fiber.

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