University researchers aim to turn agricultural waste into everyday products

Feb. 22, 2017 - In collaboration with other University of Minnesota researchers and students, Associate Professor Kechun Zhang has engineered a new synthetic biopathway that efficiently and cost-effectively uses sugars derived from inedible agricultural waste—such as orange peels, cornstalks, and sugar beet pulp—in the manufacturing of spandex, foam, stents, 3-D printing materials, medications, chewing gum, biofuels, and nutrients and flavor enhancers in human and animal foods.

To develop the pathway, they genetically modified bacteria so they could more affordably produce DOP, a key chemical used in spandex and other products. The new pathway allows reactions to happen faster than with the current conversion process and yields higher carbon conversion.

Zhang’s findings, which were published in the February 2016 issue of Nature Chemical Biology, are significant because scientists have long sought more sustainable sources of the raw materials needed to make many common products in order to reduce our reliance on petroleum-based plastics.

Soon after his first article was published, Zhang and his colleagues, including Regents Professor Frank Bates and chemistry professor Marc Hillmyer, published related research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. In that article, they describe their work as “rewiring” bacteria to transform plant-derived sugar into a molecule that can be converted to produce plastic and elastic materials. “Everything is made of sugar or sugar-derived materials,” Zhang explains. “Plants turn carbon dioxide into sugar, and it’s fed into all of life.”

Read the full feature written by Meleah Maynard titled, "From orange peels to yoga pants" via the link below.

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