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时间:2013-10-05 08:00:00  来源:  作者:

 

Peggy Greb/ARS/USDA

Future food? Cellulose from switchgrass and other nonfood plants might be converted into edible starch to feed the hungry.

The main ingredient of wood, cellulose, is one of the most abundant organic compounds on Earth and a dream source of renewable fuel. Now, bioengineers suggest that it could feed the hungry as well. In a new study, researchers have found a way to turn cellulose into starch, the most common carbohydrate in the human diet.

Ethanol is today's most common biofuel used to power vehicles. It's typically made using sugars from crop plants such as corn and sugar cane, a system critics decry is a waste of food. Enter cellulose. Plants generate as much as 180 billion tons of the substance globally per year. 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. For instance, every ton of harvested cereals is often accompanied by 2 to 3 tons of cellulose-rich scrap, most of which goes to waste.

Now, for the first time, it appears there may be a practical way that cellulose could also feed people, says bioprocess engineer Y.-H. Percival Zhang of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. He credits his line of thought to his Chinese background. "Food security has always been the number one question for nearly 5000 years of Chinese history," Zhang says. "Without enough food, crises happened and dynasties shifted." For instance, famines spurred peasant rebellions that helped lead to the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in the 9th century and the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century.

Zhang and his colleagues focused on starch, which makes up as much as 40% of people's diets. The idea of turning cellulose into starch is one rooted in the similarities between the compounds: Cellulose is composed of hundreds to thousands of molecules of the sugar glucose, and starch compounds are made of glucose as well, although the sugar is bonded together in different ways.

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