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New process could allow any plant to serve as a food source


April 19, 2013

Virginia Tech associate professor Percival Zhang is leading the research on the bioprocess

Virginia Tech associate professor Percival Zhang is leading the research on the bioprocess

Although the causes of world hunger are numerous, it certainly doesn’t help that factors such as arid conditions and limited land space make it difficult to grow food crops in certain places. If people in those areas could eat foods derived from plants that are hardy to the region, but that aren’t considered nutritious, it would go a long way towards addressing the problem. Well, that may soon be a reality, thanks to a newly-developed process that allows cellulose to be converted into starch.

Cellulose is the most common carbohydrate on Earth, and is found in the cell walls of plants. Starch, on the other hand, makes up about 20 to 40 percent of the daily caloric intake in the typical human diet.

In the new process, developed by a Virginia Tech team led by associate professor Percival Zhang, approximately 30 percent of the cellulose from any plant material (including agricultural waste) can be converted into a starch known as amylose – it’s a good source of fiber, as it isn’t broken down in the digestive tract. Additionally, according to Virginia Tech, it has been proven to decrease the risk of obesity and diabetes.

“Cellulose and starch have the same chemical formula,” said Zhang. “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 requires no heat, costly equipment or chemical reagents, and it doesn’t produce any waste. The 70 percent of the cellulose that doesn’t get converted into starch is instead hydrolyzed to glucose, which could subsequently be used in ethanol production.

Zhang added that the starch could be used not just in food, but also as a component of clear biodegradable food packaging, or even as a high-density hydrogen storage carrier.

A paper on the research was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Source: Virginia Tech

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Excellent stuff! A very nice and elegant solution to a problem!


"...into a starch known as amylose – it’s a good source of fiber, as it isn’t broken down in the digestive tract..."

In other words, it is indigestible. So it's NOT food, and will hardly solve hunger problems. And as far as a good source of fiber---cellulose is a good source of dietary fiber to begin with.



30% of the cellulose becomes amylose. You're forgetting that the other 70% becomes glucose, which CAN provide useful dietary calories, unlike the cellulose source.


"Soylent Green is made of-- CELLULOSE!!!"


Has somebody considered that one solution to the problem is to reproduce less?

Eliminate the cultural stress to reproduce. ????? PROFIT!!! Kris Lee

re; Kris Lee

Read up on the population crisis that Japan faces. It is not overpopulation. If we could stop power hungry madmen from messing up the worlds economy feeding everybody would be easy.


Gadgeteer, glucose is sugar, not the good end of carbs... But one could edulcorate the indigestible amylose parts of the plant with it!


@Kris Lee, do you know why we have all these awesome advancements in science and technology? Not because we're fed and happy, but because we are hungry and there is a huge number of us. The more people there are the more likely there will be an amazing achievement.

Artem Down

Kris Lee,

Overpopulation isn't the problem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXrN9HhnCcM


I remember reading a science fiction story about how world scientists solved the problem of starvation in Africa by introducing a change in people's gut bacteria so they could digest cellulose. In the story, fifteen or twenty years afterward a scientist/doctor largely responsible for the great solution rode a jeep through the resulting forlorn desert, taking notes. A starving boy she came across begged her for a piece of notepaper to eat. I think the story had the word Ants in the title.

Marco McClean
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