A team of researchers have successfully managed to transform cellulose into starch, opening up a potential world of new food sources
While many in the industrialized world doesn’t have to face it on a daily basis, a third of our species is starving, and with our population expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, a solution is in dire need. Y.H. Percival Zhang and his team of researchers at Virginia Tech may have stumbled onto one of the greatest tools to help solve this problem. His team has managed to transform cellulose into starch, a necessary component in our diet that makes up around 20-40% of our food intake.
Cellulose is the most common carbohydrate on the planet and exists in cell walls of plants. Cellulose is all around us, but because of how humans have evolved, we can’t digest it. This is why we can’t eat grass or leaves or trees like the planet’s many herbivores do. However, if we could transform the cellulose into starch, every non-poisonous plant around us magically becomes a source of food, removing the need to grow crops in large areas with pesticides.
Zhang’s team is able to turn the cellulose into amylose, a linear restraint starch that doesn’t break down while being digested and provides a good source of fiber. It has been known to decrease the risks of obesity and diabetes as well. Beyond the amazing applications as food, Zhang sees many other applications for the new technology: "Besides serving as a food source, the starch can be used in the manufacture of edible, clear films for biodegradable food packaging. It can even serve as a high-density hydrogen storage carrier that could solve problems related to hydrogen storage and distribution."
Zhang explains that cellulose and starch have the same formula, the only difference between them is the molecular linkages, and he was able to transform the cellulose using a process called "simultaneous enzymatic biotransformation and microbial fermentation". The chemical process then turns about 30% of the matter into starch, while the rest is hydrolyzed and can be used in ethanol production. Zhang believes the process can be easily scaled up for commercial production.