New Method to Turn Agricultural Waste into Green Products: Materials Science

First Posted: Feb 09, 2016 09:07 AM EST

Scientists have engineered a new synthetic biopathway that can more efficiently and cost-effectively turn agricultural waste, like corn stover and orange peoples into useful products. The findings could be huge for using discarded waste.

For years, researchers 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-food 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 latest study, the researchers looked at turning inedible biological byproducts, called lignocellulosic biomass, into useful products in order to avoid the "food versus chemical" purposes. Specifically, the scientists looked at the process to use lignocellulosic biomass to produce butanediol (BDO), which is used to produce more than 1 billion pounds of spandex each year used in clothing and home furnishings.

The 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.

"We found that this new platform could be used to convert agricultural waste to chemicals that canbe used for many other products ranging from chicken feed to flavor enhancers in food," said Kechun Zhang, one of the researchers, in a news release. "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."

The findings are published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

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