University research team pushes biomanufacturing

A new study will help change waste into sustainable consumer products.

Eliana Schreiber

Food scraps destined for the compost bin might not have to go to waste.
A recent University of Minnesota study discovered a new biopathway — a process organic materials go through to create new chemical compounds — that will allow scientists to convert compost into a sustainable resource for products ranging from clothing to household fixtures.
The research concluded that the new biopathway could lead large commercial manufacturers to adopt biomanufacturing, which is the practice of using living organisms to create products, said Kechun Zhang, lead researcher and chemical engineering and materials science professor.
“[This process] enables the manufacturing of a variety of chemical products, so that’s why we are excited about this,” he said.
The pathway discovered is much more efficient than ones previously used because it converts more sugar and produces a greater yield, said chemical engineering and materials science graduate student Pooja Jambunathan.
Right now, most companies that use biomanufacturing rely on glucose, she said. They could benefit economically from converting other types of sugars and could make more products with the same amount of starting materials.
The three sugars the researchers tested make up about one-third of a typical biomass, Jambunathan said. 
The study utilized sugars not typically used in biomanufacturing as well as making use of food that would otherwise go to waste, she said.
To find the biopathway, the researchers assembled DNA into 10 mega proteins that create biochemical reactions. These proteins convert sugar into chemicals which are then used to create recycled products, Zhang said.
Over the past several years, he said controversy emerged over whether scientists should convert food, such as sugar, into fuel or chemicals. Some say the food could be eaten instead of being transformed into a chemical or fuel, Zhang said.
“We made sure to use sugars that are … inedible, so [we could] avoid this controversy of food versus fuel or food versus chemical,” Jambunathan said.
The new biopathway can also help create new fuel sources, said recent University graduate and researcher Cole Stapleton. He said the study was funded because of its use of inedible biomass. 
“We’ve [also] been designing new chemicals that can produce plastics that are sustainably produced and alleviate some of the need for petroleum-based plastics,” he said.