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Biological Pathway To Recycle Agricultural Waste

Scientists have developed a synthetic “biopathway” designed to turn agricultural waste, such as corn stover (the leaves and stalks of maize) and orange peels, into a range of recycled products – from spandex to chicken feed.

The idea of recycling is a good one – both environmentally and economically. With the agricultural sector there is considerable waste, especially with the manufacture of food. One large area of waste is the ‘biomass’ left from corn and sugarcane. To tackle this, scientists have developed a way to make usable products from the leftovers.

The leftover biomass from the corn princess is called lignocelluloslic biomass. By using a bio-conversion process, laboratory studies have shown this biomass can be converted to the chemical butanediol (BDO). In turn, BDO can be used to manufacture spandex, which is used for clothing and home furnishings.

The process utilizes bacteria and fungi. These microbes turn the biomass into tricarboxylic acid (TCA) intermediates through their metabolic processes. By genetically modifying the organisms, the number of steps taken to achieve this has been reduced from 10 steps to 5 steps. TCA becomes BDO through chemical reaction.

By tweaking the process, it is not just the basis of spandex that can be produced. Researchers are also capable of generating such products as chicken feed and flavor enhancers in food. With promising results so far, further research is being undertaken.

The research was conducted at the University of Minnesota, and the findings are published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology. The paper is titled “Engineering nonphosphorylative metabolism to generate lignocellulose-derived products.”

About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.