Few people turn to a tree branch or corn husk for a meal, and for good reason. The cellulose found in the cell walls of plants is enormously difficult for the human digestive system to break down. The carbohydrate is one of the most abundant organic materials in the world, and thanks to new research it could serve as a potential food source for a global population estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050. Researchers from Virginia Tech recently found a way to convert cellulose into amylose through a bioprocess called “simultaneous enzymatic biotransformation and microbial fermentation”. They published their findings this week in the early edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A team from Virginia Tech led by Y.H. Percival Zhang, Hongge Chen, and Chun You, have succeeded in turning cellulose into amylose, a linear resistant starch that is a source of dietary fiber and has been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes and obesity. By using cascading enzymes, they were able to break the bonds in the chemical structure and reconfigure them as an edible substance. Taking the cellulose from corn stover, the technique can convert 30% of the mass into amylose and hydrolize the rest into glucose that can be used to produce ethanol.
Not only a novel way to make a meal, their work has applications in creating biodegradable, consumable food packaging as well as a high-density hydrogen storage carrier. Moreover, the process is environmentally friendly, as it does not need expensive equipment, heat, toxic chemicals, or generate waste. With food being able to be created from any plant, large areas of cropland, fertilizers, or irrigation may not be necessary. Thanks to science, humans are beginning to rewrite the menu.