Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems and engineering at Virginia Tech, and Chun You, a postdoctoral researcher from China, have successfully transformed plant cellulose into starch. In other words, they've effectively converted the world's most common carbohydrate (which happens to be inedible to humans) into amylose, a starch that acts as a good source of fiber and has been linked to reduced risk of obesity and diabetes. Their research on cellulose-to-starch biotransformation was published in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"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 process is called simultaneous enzymatic biotransformation and microbial fermentation. It can covert inedible plant material, such as corn stover (the stems, leaves and husk), into 30 percent amylose with the leftovers hydrolyzed to glucose suitable for ethanol production. The technology, which Zhang notes can be scaled for commercial production, is environmentally friendly since it doesn't generate waste or require expensive equipment, heat or chemical reagents.
While starch makes up 20 to 40 percent of humans' daily caloric intake, Zhang says the converted product can also be used to create edible films for biodegradable packaging or a high-density hydrogen storage carrier. It almost seems too good to be true, converting plant waste into food and fuel using nothing but enzymes. But it's not too good to be true. It's science.
Via Science Daily
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