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Industrial Enzymes and Food in One Plant.

Some crops are grown for food and others to produce consumer goods, but a special group of potato plants now is doing both at once. Researchers at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Wash., have developed a specialized capability to control genes that are transplanted into a plant. With it, they are able to direct desirable traits into a specific portion of a plant, allowing dual use of one crop.

The experimental potatoes have sprouted valuable enzymes in the vines, while the tubers remain just plain potatoes to be baked, boiled, or turned into french fries. These transgenic plants have been modified to produce cellulase enzymes in the foliage. The cellulase-producing genes were isolated from bacterial and fungal organisms.

Cellulase is an enzyme used to break down plant material and is utilized in a wide variety of applications, from food processing to ethanol production. "The process can be adapted to create additional enzymes such as lipases and proteases used in pharmaceuticals [and] specialty chemical and industrial products," notes biochemical engineer Brian Hooker.

Currently, industrial enzymes are grown in fermenters, which is a labor- and time-intensive process that is relatively costly. Researchers say using plants as "bioreactors" to grow the enzymes is much easier and cheaper. The fermentation process costs range from $50 to $250 per gram of desired product, while Pacific Northwest estimates that growing the enzymes in plants would run less than a penny per gram, including processing.

The process isn't limited just to potatoes. Other plants, especially corn, can be modified to produce enzymes in the non-edible portions. With more than 120,000,000 dry tons of corn stalks and 4,000,000 dry tons of potato foliage produced per year, this is an untapped resource for industrial compounds.

Additionally, the process is a boon to farmers who would be able to sell two crops for the cost of growing one. Pacific Northwest researchers estimate that, by marketing the potato tubers for food and vines for enzymes, farmers could increase their profits by as much as $100-200 per acre.
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2000
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