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We Could Eat Trees: Scientists Turn Inedible Plant Cellulose Into Starchy Snack

• Rebecca Boyle via

Someday, it will be be summer again and it will be time for fresh sweet corn. In the future, you might be able to eat the whole thing, cob and all.

This weird possibility is courtesy of some scientists at Virginia Tech, who have transformed cellulose, a mostly indigestible polymer, into helpful, indispensable starch.

Plants produce cellulose and starch, which are chemically similar, for very different purposes. Cellulose forms the cell walls of most plants, algae and even some bacteria, and we use it for anything from clothing (cotton is almost all cellulose) to paper to ethanol. Starch is a plant’s energy source, and it’s ours, too, in the form of tasty things like potatoes, wheat and corn. The difference between the two is a simple change in the hydrogen bonds that form the molecules.

Animals like cows and pigs can digest cellulose thanks to symbiotic bacteria in their digestive tracts, but humans can’t. It’s important in our diets as source of fiber, in that it binds together waste in our digestive tracts. Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, set out to make it a food source.

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