Scientists Turn Corn Husks Into Dinner
The new technique might make it possible for scientists to create food without the use of soil, fertilizer, pesticides or large amounts of water.
A team of researchers at Virginia Tech recently succeeded in transforming cellulose into starch, a process that could be used to find new nutrient sources from plants not traditionally thought of as food crops. And at 20 to 40 percent of a person’s daily caloric intake, starch is an important- and increasingly scarce- resource in today’s world.
The researchers took cellulose from corn stover-the stem, leaves, and husk of a corn plant- and turned it into amylose, a linear resistant starch that serves as a good source of dietary fiber.
This innovative process, known as “simultaneous enzymatic biotransformation and microbial fermentation,” may be a mouthful, but it’s based on the simple fact that cellulose and starch have the same chemical formula.
“The difference [between cellulose and starch] is in their chemical linkages,” said Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech and lead researcher behind the new study. “Our idea is to use an enzyme cascade to break up the bonds in cellulose, enabling their reconfiguration as starch.”
Zhang explains that while the researchers used corn stover for the sake of their experiment, the bioprocess can be repeated with the cellulose from any plant. About 30 percent of the cellulose used in the process is converted into digestible starch, while the rest is hydrolyzed into glucose, which can be used in the production of ethanol.
The process is even easy to repeat on a commercial level, according to the researchers. It requires no expensive equipment, heat or chemical reagents, and it doesn’t generate waste, making it environmentally friendly, as well. This bioprocess also has a number of other potential uses outside of food production.
“Besides serving as a food source, the starch can be used in the manufacture of edible, clear films for biodegradable food packaging,” Zhang said. “It can even serve as a high-density hydrogen storage carrier that could solve problems related to hydrogen storage and distribution.”
Practical storage of hydrogen has long been a challenge faced by engineers looking to design hydrogen-fueled vehicles and other technologies that rely on this alternative, clean source of fuel.
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