Turning Grass and Trees into Food: Neo-Malthusians Mocked by Human Ingenuity Again

More parts of a pine tree are edibleCredit: DreamstimeDuring famines, desperate people often try to survive by eating things like grass and tree bark. That doesn't do much to alleviate their hunger since trees and grass are chiefly composed of cellulose which people's guts cannot digest. Starch, found in wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes, makes up a big portion of the modern human diet. Now researchers at Virginia Tech have announced in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they can turn cellulose into edible starch. From the abstract:

The global demand for food could double in another 40 y owing to growth in the population and food consumption per capita. To meet the world’s future food and sustainability needs for biofuels and renewable materials, the production of starch-rich cereals and cellulose-rich bioenergy plants must grow substantially while minimizing agriculture’s environmental footprint and conserving biodiversity. Here we demonstrate one-pot enzymatic conversion of pretreated biomass to starch through a nonnatural synthetic enzymatic pathway composed of endoglucanase, cellobiohydrolyase, cellobiose phosphorylase, and alpha-glucan phosphorylase originating from bacterial, fungal, and plant sources. A special polypeptide cap in potato alpha-glucan phosphorylase was essential to push a partially hydrolyzed intermediate of cellulose forward to the synthesis of amylose. Up to 30% of the anhydroglucose units in cellulose were converted to starch; the remaining cellulose was hydrolyzed to glucose suitable for ethanol production by yeast in the same bioreactor. Next-generation biorefineries based on simultaneous enzymatic biotransformation and microbial fermentation could address the food, biofuels, and environment trilemma.

R&D Magazine further notes:

Cellulose is the supporting material in plant cell walls and is the most common carbohydrate on earth. This new development opens the door to the potential that food could be created from any plant, reducing the need for crops to be grown on valuable land that requires fertilizers, pesticides, and large amounts of water. The type of starch that Zhang’s team produced is amylose, a linear resistant starch that is not broken down in the digestion process and acts as a good source of dietary fiber. It has been proven to decrease the risk of obesity and diabetes.

Thus does human ingenuity conjure new resources and mock the grim prophecies on Neo-Malthusians.

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  • Radioactive||

    let them eat cake?

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    only if it is gluten free

  • Brandybuck||

    I am truly sorry you have a gluten allergy, but shut the fuck up about it and let me eat my pasta!!!

  • Hugh Akston||

    I wonder if it's possible to engineer a probiotic bacterial supplement that we can take to help us break down a wider variety of plant matter more efficiently the way ruminants do, but without all the cud.

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    the fluid they fed robocop?

  • ||

    Hugh just wants a stomach with four compartments, so he can store wood paste in his sack for future digestion.

  • Hugh Akston||

    The challenger's ugly food has shown us that even hideous things can be sweet on the inside.

  • ||

    Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.

  • entropy||

    The issue is, eating those plants isn't very efficient to begin with. Much more efficient to eat to stuff that eats that stuff, most of the hard digestive work already being done.

  • Brandybuck||

    I only eat carnivores...

  • Hugh Akston||

    All our horses are 100% horse-fed for that double-horse juiced-in goodness.

  • PapayaSF||

    +1

  • MJGreen||

    +Horse Coke

    Oh, sorry. Horse Pepsi okay?

  • anomdebus||

    Neigh

  • robc||

    I only eat creatures that eat sentient beings.

  • robc||

    That was a 19 year M:tG joke, so might as well get it entirely right:

    The Ogre philosopher Gnerdel believed the purpose of life was to live as high on the food chain as possible. She refused to eat vegetarians, preferring to live entirely on creatures that preyed on sentient beings.

  • db||

    I got it.

  • ||

    A few people are working on changing the gut flora to make it better for human health. Meredith Patterson developed a yogurt bacteria that would complete the vitamin c cycle in the human gut. (I originally read it in a New Scientist article, but there's a paywall now)

    Breaking down cellulose would probably be quite energy intensive, so it might not be that beneficial to do it in gut.

  • Hugh Akston||

    So you're saying I have to go back to tackling ruminants to steal their cud?

  • ||

    That's a verbose, roundabout way to talk about your predilection for bestiality, Hugh.

  • ||

    "tackle"

    I ain't gonna lie, Hugh bust a nut up in the ruminant.

  • ||

    If you're going to steal my jokes*, jesse, I expect royalty payments. I don't believe in IP but I am greedy as hell.

    * is telling the truth a joke?

  • ||

    You're gonna have to take me to court on this Epi, I'm pretty sure that my joke was substantively different from yours even if they were both constructed around the motif that Hugh has sex with animals for fun and profit (the video tapes sell very well in Germany). Yours made no reference to Andrew Mendoza, and I did not use the word bestiality at all.

  • ||

    God, even your evasions are weak. If you're going to talk about horse fucking, you reference the Enumclaw Horse Fucker, you fool. This is why you should pay me: for my cracking an egg of knowledge on your head.

  • ||

    Minor quibble: wasn't he the Enumclaw Horse Fuckee?

  • ||

    Pitcher, catcher, horse fuckee, the point is all the same: jesse got it wrong.

  • $park¥||

    Do you really think anyone believes that that was the goo you put in jesse's hair?

  • ||

    The Mr. Hands thing is a little extreme for my taste, my friend thought it was hilarious, I felt like we'd just watched a snuff film.

    Andrew Mendoza, otoh, is hilarious beyond words.

  • ||

    Clostridium would be a good start.

  • Adamsmith1776||

    "This new development opens the door to the potential that food could be created from any plant." Get real--the first application will involve the EPA requiring these plants to be converted into ethanol to meet the cellulistic ethanol mandates.

  • np||

    All those cornfields will be replaced with grass fields. The midwest will be like a big giant lawn.

  • Hugh Akston||

    This was a discount store,
    Now it's turned into a cornfield

  • Citizen Nothing||

    You got it.

  • Legate Damar||

    Say something once, why say it again?

  • SKR||

    I'm pretty sure that's called native prairie.

  • Tim||

    Euell Gibbons was right.

  • Ron Bailey||

    T: Yes he was.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    I never thought I'd see that name again...well done.

  • entropy||

    The type of starch that Zhang’s team produced is amylose, a linear resistant starch that is not broken down in the digestion process and acts as a good source of dietary fiber.

    Eh... so they suceeded in turning inedible cellulose into inedible starch? Um... whoopee?

  • Ron Bailey||

    e: Amylose is in fact edible. Click on the starch link for more info.

  • entropy||

    "Edible" in the sense that fiber is edible?

    Maybe inedible is the wrong word. You can eat it... but will it actually provide any nutrition? Or just make you shit more regular?

  • entropy||

    I googled it. I guess it has some nutritional value because it does break down partially.

  • Ron Bailey||

    e: Yes, and the process also produces glucose which is certainly edible. Again, my apologies for not clarifying the R&D Mag citation.

  • CampingInYourPark||

    Yeah, I did that. Found a lot of "amylose free" diets too.

  • np||

    proper elimination is part of proper nutrition too

  • Ron Bailey||

    e: Yeah, R&D mag didn't get it quite right, and I should have noted that in the post. Sorry for the confusion.

  • Bee Tagger||

    Now researchers at Virginia Tech have announced in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they can turn cellulose into edible starch.

    Looks like Julian Simon's gamble on people continuing to be able to gambol is still the safe bet.

  • ||

    You did not just use that word.

  • ubik||

    If there is a heaven Norman Borlaug (probably helped saved more lives than any other human being in history) is smiling and saying "wrong again!" to the nearest neo-Malthusian.

  • John||

    saying "wrong again!" to the nearest neo-Malthusian

    You mean Heaven has a phone line to hell?

  • ||

    Wouldn't be heaven if you couldn't mock your enemies.

  • Enough About Palin||

    My first words in heaven would be, "Where's my dog?" and "Me and the dog will have the buffet."

  • ||

    Don't worry. They've find a reason to ban this just so they can be proven right by millions of people starving.

  • Brandon||

    No thanks, I'll just have a steak.

  • B.P.||

    "Waiter, bring me something in a vat-grown human meat, perhaps a filet of Kardashian, and a side of douglas fir fries. Oh, and some mastadon rinds for a starter."

  • John||

    Those Kardasian filets are going to give you a stroke some day.

  • ||

    That's the dirtiest thing I've read all day.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Don't be fooled. Soylent Green is people.

  • ||

    Mmmmm, people.

  • Jesus H. Christ||

    Soylent green is used pallets! Soylent green is used pallets!

    Watch out for the nails.

    Smiling child: "My pallet was used to carry apples!"
    Frowning child: "My pallet was used to carry fish guts."

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Dying child: "My pallet was treated with cyanide."

  • Steve G||

    Too bad the evidence is starting to pile up suggesting carbs are the culprit in most of our modern health issues, and not fat...

  • prolefeed||

    Total caloric intake is causing the modern health issues. If you burn off all the carbs you eat in exercise or other activities, it doesn't cause obesity.

  • Steve G||

    Negative. Since you appear to imply obesity is the cause of modern health issues, you fail to explain all the skinny people getting heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc, etc. Educate yourself before you just parrot Letsmove.gov.
    Start here:
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytim.....gar-folks/
    then here to address your specific point about caloric intake:
    http://www.amazon.com/Good-Cal.....1400033462

  • SKR||

    oh no he didn't.

    seriously? Your 'education' consists of drivel popscience and the ramblings of a raving food nanny? You've got to be fucking kidding me?

  • Steve G||

    Popscience? Have you read GCBC? He cites decades old research that existed long before the recent anti-fat/pro-carb agenda. And as for the nanny bit, I could give a shit about Lustig's desire to ban/regulate sugar, but I do respect the fact that at least we are just starting to do real research on the subject vs the standard observational/epidemiological crap.
    If you disagree w/ any of Taubes or Lustig's conclusions, please explain, I'd like to hear it.

  • SKR||

    post actual studies and I will read them. Post fucking Bittman and I will point and laugh.

  • Steve G||

  • ||

    I know. It's like talking to a progressive.

  • prolefeed||

    My point is that carbs are not bad for your health in and of themselves. They won't cause obesity if you exercise regularly and eat moderate portions in a balanced diet.

    Being too skinny is not a big killer in America, especially if you're skinny because you work out a lot.

    If you're sedentary, you're going to have more health problems than if you're active, regardless of body size.

  • Steve G||

    Concur w/ your last point; exercise mitigates a lot; i.e. weight training improves insulin resistance.
    The problem is that most everybody thinks that obesity causes other problems. So, the theory goes, you stay thin, all is well. The problem is obesity is an outcome like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure of a common cause. If you only focus on obesity, you can miss the development of other issues. This is how you get skinny people dropping dead of heart attacks, or cancer, or even getting hit with diabetes. Does being obese raise your risk? Yes, but it doesn't mean if you're not fat, you're good.

  • ||

    "The problem is that most everybody thinks that obesity causes other problems. "

    ^^THIS. In spades.
    (while not probable) A person could become obese eating a crate of avocados a day without developing heart disease. Likewise, a person could eat carrots and apples all day and might develop diabetes without showing signs of obesity.

    The culprit is the type of foods that obese people tend to eat, which happens to be fast food and crap high in triglycerides and cholesterol, as well as caloric content.

  • Steve G||

    I was totally with you until I got to cholesterol. There's simply no link to dietary cholesterol and heart disease. Carbs drive negative serum cholesterol numbers.

  • ||

    Right, because the Atkins diet's carb-free founder didn't die of heart disease.

    I think there's a variety of factors, and pinning illnesses on only one in particular is not particularly convincing.

  • ||

    Right, because the Atkins diet's carb-free founder didn't die of heart disease.

    AGRICULTURAL-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX PROPAGANDA!

    On April 8, 2003, at age 72, a day after a major snowstorm in New York, Atkins slipped on an icy pavement, suffering severe head trauma. He spent nine days in intensive care before dying on April 17, 2003, from complications from his head injury.
  • ||

    Well, my statement was true, even if the sarcastic intent was only half correct (he still did have a heart attack).

  • cuernimus||

    He had a chronic infection that moved into his heart, causing it to fail. It wasn't related to his diet unless he got the illness from some bad bacon.

  • ||

    " If you burn off all the carbs you eat in exercise or other activities, it doesn't cause obesity."

    Eh, the whole "burning off" thing is turning out to be pretty oversimplistic.

    Glycolysis assures a certain amount of ATP molecules are produced by breaking down a single glucose molecule. The leftover in a healthy metabolism is pyruvate, which is then broken down into more ATP and niacin. The whole process uses more than a dozen different enzymes to produce energy and vitamins like B3.

    All it takes is inheriting a single mutated copy of any of these enzymes and your metabolism is really fucked. I've got a bad aldolase-b gene, which means about half the glucose I ingest can't net any ATP, and the leftover junk molecules get stuck in fat and liver cells.

    The point I'm trying to make is that a lot of studies have confirmed that slight mutations in metabolism are prevalent and require an intake adjustment to ensure you're not going to become a big fatty.

  • Steve G||

    "pretty oversimplistic" Exactly. Taubes goes to great lengths proving that it's not a simple thermo problem.

  • ||

    In the next few decades, I think we're going to see genetic research indicate that even generalized forms of nutrition advice like "eat x% of carbs/fat" are false. I can't remember the energy required to turn AMP to ADP/ADP to ATP, but individual differences in motor protein complexes and things like that are going to hamper a person's ability to perform mechanical work and do things like burn fat.

  • prolefeed||

    The type of starch that Zhang’s team produced is amylose, a linear resistant starch that is not broken down in the digestion process and acts as a good source of dietary fiber.

    This isn't food -- it doesn't produce calories that the body can burn to fuel life.

    It's diet "food" for people who want to produce massive craps.

    Not quite the breakthrough Ron trumpets -- yet.

  • ||

    Read Ron's comment above. It is partially broken down into glucose...which definitely has calories the body can burn.

  • ||

    Not to mention that you'd have to cultivate the shit out of the cellulase enzymes and other crap that's needed to break the stuff down. Either that or polymerase chain reaction the shit out of the individual proteins. I like the idea... but it sounds inefficient as hell.

  • Wind Rider||

    This news will not slow down the neo-Malthusians one bit. All they have to do is start spreading the meme that this was all funded by Monsanto, and in their world, instant discreditation will surely follow amongst the faithful.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Wind Rider,

    All they have to do is start spreading the meme that this was all funded by Monsanto


    Or the Koch brothers or whatever group which is perceived by the left to be just like government - i.e. criminal.

  • PapayaSF||

    This new development opens the door to the potential that food could be created from any plant, reducing the need for crops to be grown on valuable land that requires fertilizers, pesticides, and large amounts of water.

    I should think the more likely first use would be to use agricultural waste from food crops. People are more likely to want to eat something made from (say) corn cobs than from tree bark. Which brings up an interesting problem: can the label just list "corn" as an ingredient, if it's corn cobs processed into starch by this process?

  • ||

    I still think the best way to convert cellulose into human food is by feeding it to beef cattle and pigs.

    Bacon Cheese burger will always be better then "pine tree slurry enzyme soup.

  • ||

    I don't think the yield on that is as good though.

  • prolefeed||

    "Best" in what sense? If this process eventually results in people being able to get enough calories to eat for pennies a day, that will beat starving.

    If you're wealthy enough that starving isn't remotely a possibility, then sure, meat is great.

  • ||

    Yeah, but the cow is doing all the work for you. It's breaking down the celullose and creating more fat and proteins. It takes a lot less know-how and maintenance costs to farm a few heads of cattle than it does to maintain a bioreactor and culture the required inputs.

  • phandaal||

    Raising animals for food is a lot more energy and resource intensive than growing crops. I can't remember the exact figures right now, but Google should provide easy confirmation of this.

  • ||

    Yeah in a factory/farm setting, you're right. But in some remote village? Much more efficient to have cattle graze on plant material that's there. If the whole point is to create a bioreactor to feed poor people, it's going to take a lot more development to make it economical compared to getting cattle to fuck.

  • Tim||

    Amy loose? She's a total slut!

  • db||

    PEAK MALTHUS!

  • SKR||

    that's a subset of peak retard and thus unattainable.

  • db||

    More importantly, we can now clear millions of acres of forest to grow switch grass to make cellulosic-derivative starch to feed our ethanol plants!

  • ||

    They are clearly going to have to market this as "health food" like tempeh and granola, or nobody is going to eat it. It's made from GMOs!!!!!

  • Tim||

    I predict that North Korea will soon be deforested.

  • WomSom||

    Smack dat ass one time dude.

    www.AnonHit.tk

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