What if we could eat wood?

Would we then be able to feed the whole world? Maybe. Scientists have found a way to turn indigestible cellulose into starch.

Cellulose is a main component of wood, cotton, and the cob part of the corn. It’s one of the most abundant organic compounds on the planet -- plants generate 180 billion tons globally per year -- making it a dream source of renewable fuel.

Now there's a way to turn indigestible cellulose into starch, the most common carbohydrate in our diet. ScienceNOW reports.

Companies around the globe are racing to produce biofuels from cellulose from inedible plants, such as switchgrass and poplar trees, grown on marginal land that requires little water, fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticides, or from the vast amount of scrap from crop and wood-based industries.

And every ton of harvested cereals comes with three tons of cellulose-rich waste. Meanwhile, starch makes up nearly 40 percent of our diets -- and it’s made of the sugar glucose, just like cellulose but bonded differently.

So a team led by Y.-H. Percival Zhang of Virginia Tech created a cocktail of enzymes: one set breaks cellulose down into smaller molecules, while another builds these components into starch.

The process converts up to a third of the cellulose into the starch molecule amylose. The final product -- a white powder when dried -- “tasted slightly sweet” after you chew it for a while, Zhang says.

  • The process costs $1 million to turn 200 kilograms of crude cellulose into 20 kilograms of starch -- enough for my carbohydrate needs for 80 days.
  • There shouldn’t be any huge obstacles to commercializing this process, Zhang says. With more research, companies could do the same thing for $0.50 per person per day.
  • Scaled up, 100 billion tons of cellulose could provide one-third of the food needed to feed the world in 2050.

The work was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.

[Via ScienceNOW]

Image by How can I recycle this via Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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