Scientists create synthetic biopathway to turn agriculture waste into 'green' products

February 8, 2016
Researchers create synthetic biopathway to turn agriculture waste into 'green' products
In the lab, researchers use engineered bacteria to brew green chemicals that can be used in a wide range of useful products. Credit: University of Minnesota

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have engineered a new synthetic biopathway that can more efficiently and cost-effectively turn agricultural waste, like corn stover and orange peels, into a variety of useful products ranging from spandex to chicken feed.

The groundbreaking study was published today in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

For years, have been looking for more sustainable sources for the raw materials used to make the products we use every day. Recently, biomass made from corn or sugarcane is used in manufacturing of a wide range of non- products from plastics to fuel. However, use of food to make inedible products is controversial because it affects the food supply and can elevate food prices.

In this study, researchers looked at turning inedible biological byproducts, that scientists call lignocelluloslic biomass, to produce useful products to avoid the "food versus chemical" purposes. They specifically looked at the process to use to produce butanediol (BDO) that is used to produce more than 1 billion pounds of spandex each year used in clothing and home furnishings. In 2010, it was estimated that spandex was used in 80 percent of all clothing.

To establish the platform pathway, researchers examined the gene sequences from bacteria and fungi that turn the biomass into tricarboxylic acid (TCA) intermediates. The researchers call this new metabolism "nonphosphorylative metabolism," which enables the production of useful products from TCA cycle with less than five steps, compared to previous 10 steps. Less steps in the process resulted in a 70 percent higher yield in production and a process that is overall better for the environment.

What excited researchers the most was that this pathway could be used for more than just producing BDO for spandex. It can be used to produce a variety of useful products.

"We found that this new platform could be used to convert to chemicals that can be used for many other ranging from chicken feed to flavor enhancers in food," said the study's lead researcher Kechun Zhang, a chemical engineering and materials science assistant professor in the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering.

"The pathway we developed was sustainable so it is better for the environment. This study is also one of the few examples of artificial metabolic pathways constructed so far," Zhang added.

Explore further: Researchers design computational tool to prospect novel bioconversion pathways

More information: Engineering nonphosphorylative metabolism to generate lignocellulose-derived products, Nature Chemical Biology, DOI: 10.1038/nchembio.2020

Related Stories

Making the biofuels process safer for microbes

July 2, 2015

A team of investigators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michigan State University have created a process for making the work environment less toxic—literally—for the organisms that do the heavy lifting in the ...

From food waste to food delicacies

December 8, 2015

How do you like your fruit and vegetables - in the shape of crystals, syrup, powder or crisps? A new treatment method for waste products from the production of fruit and vegetables can turn some or all of the products that ...

Student moves from theory to proof in fuel cell research

October 19, 2015

Sadia Kabir is exploring a new world in the basement of Farris Engineering Building. The Ph.D. engineering student works in the research group headed by University of New Mexico Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biologicall ...

Recommended for you

Turning CO2 to stone

October 25, 2016

Earth has limits to the amount of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere before the environment as we know it starts to change. Too much CO2 absorbed by the oceans makes the water more acidic. Too much in the atmosphere warms the ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Feb 08, 2016
Bacteria and fungi that turn the biomass into tricarboxylic acid (TCA) intermediates. I know this is different from what happen if you open a bottle of wine and let air mix with the wine. It becomes acidic or vinegar after a while.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.