Driving Toward the Future of Biofuels and Molecular Nutrition

By Tyler Klein

Fill a gas tank or feed a person? There's a belief that today's crops can only do one or the other. The fact is that researchers are constantly developing new ways to more efficiently use Earth's limited resources.

"The alternative energies are going to fall into essentially two broad categories. One is going to be ethanol, whether it's cellulosic ethanol or non-cellulosic ethanol," said Paul Black, who is the Charles Bessey Professor of Biological Chemistry and chair of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Ethanol produced from corn is an example of cellulosic ethanol. This corn-based biofuel has been the renewable fuel that has had the most emphasis in production since 2005.

"The other part of that equation is alternative feed-stocks that can be used for the production of a new generation, or next generation biofuel," Black said.

Ethanol produced from corn has been a staple in the corn belt of the Midwest. It has had several positive impacts, economically because it has helped lower gas prices, and environmentally because it burns cleaner than petroleum.

What consumers might not know is that it also has helped keep meat prices down.

When a bushel of corn is processed at an ethanol plant, two products are made: ethanol and distillers grains. To produce ethanol, the starch is extracted from the corn kernels and broken down into simple sugars. These sugars can then be fed to yeast. A waste product from the yeast is ethanol. Approximately 2.7 gallons of ethanol can be produced from a bushel of corn. What's left of the kernels is a protein dense byproduct called distillers grains that can be fed to animals. Per pound, these distillers grains can be used more efficiently by animals than plain corn.

Essentially, livestock producers are getting a better quality of feed for a lower price. With lower feeding prices, lower meat prices can be maintained, and keeping prices low is imperative to effectively feeding a growing population.

Black believes that the next generation of biofuels will be even more efficient.

New generation biofuels packed with energy

lab bottles"There's a lot more energy contained within a petroleum product that comes from these new generation biofuels," he said.

Microalgae and camelina are examples of organisms that could produce a new class of biofuels.

"The beauty of the microalgae is that you can put it under stress conditions, such as nutritional stress. That results in the accumulation of oil in the form of triglycerides," Black said.

More energy is packed into these oils because they contain more carbon bonds. Ethanol only has one carbon bond, while the oil product produced from algae has more (e.g. 14, 15 and 16). This means these molecules contain more stored energy, which is released when these bonds are broken.

"Efforts in biochemistry are working towards these next generation biofuels, particularly using algae. In addition, there are a couple of researchers in biochemistry working with camelina," Black said. Camelina is a non-food oilseed crop that can be grown in parts of Nebraska, as well as in other states in the northern Great Plains.

With the population increasing and developing countries continuing to have higher energy demands, Black believes biofuels will be important drivers in the energy market.

"In the long run, 30-50 percent of the overall portfolio of energy might come from these new biofuel sources," said Black. "Down the road, five to 10 years, you're going to see that pretty much as a standard."

Molecular nutrition progresses

Considering the massive quantities of food demanded by the world's population and the immense scales of production required to meet those demands, most people would not consider looking at food scarcity from the microscopic, or molecular level.

Paul Black, the Charles Bessey Professor of Biological Chemistry and chair of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is involved in research that does exactly that.

"One of the questions we're interested in is how essential fatty acids are specifically taken up by cells, how they're compartmentalized within cells and how they promote health and prevent disease," Black said.

Researchers at UNL are working to understand the metabolic events within cells that allow these nutritional fatty acids to be transported into the cell and compartmentalized for specific functions and how and how these acids are diseasepreventing and health-promoting.

"I think everybody needs to be aware of nutritional fatty acids," said Black. "Omega 3 fatty acids in particular are interesting because they are not only essential, but health promoting. If you look at fetal development, for example, the developing fetus has to take up considerable quantities of n-3 fatty acids and get them into their circulation because they're involved in brain development," Black said.

The human brain will not properly develop without n-3 fatty acids. Also, the retina in the human eye will not fully form in the right way because these acids contribute to the architecture of the membrane within the retina. Further, n-3 fatty acids contribute to a variety of signaling events that are antiinflammatory.

There has to be an appropriate balance of the types of fats that consumers take in.

"We've got to have some of these essential fatty acids in order to maintain our overall health. And at the same time, we want to minimize some of the more detrimental fatty acids," he said.

Limiting intake of saturated fatty acids and trans-fatty acids will promote greater overall health.

Biochemistry's application to agriculture

Paul Black in the lab"There are 21 faculty members in the Department of Biochemistry. Their research efforts address basic plant biochemistry to biomedical research. So we've got a pipeline of expertise that is really quite interesting. At one end, there are faculty members who are evaluating how to modify food crops to enhance nutritional value and on the other end of the spectrum, there are members of the faculty who are addressing complex diseases, including cardiovascular disease," Black said.

With this range of research diversity, researchers can address food scarcity from many different angles. Food production and nutrition can all be examined in the same place. "There is an additional pipeline at the university that is also very unique. We understand food production, and we understand food processing," said Black. "It's not just about food production, it's also about producing food that has the appropriate nutritional quality to advance human health."

Human health can also be improved simply by understanding what goes into the products that the population consumes.

Black believes it is important to connect the production pipeline with health promotion and disease prevention.

"We have to work from the level of the agricultural producer and the food processor, and we have to engage physicians and the public health professionals," Black said.

Through continued research and education, food production and processing can continue to be improved, which will lead to better health and living standards for the growing population.

"If you just put American ingenuity to work, we can solve the problem," said Black. "I think it's going to be a fun run for the next five years."


The Morrill Act of 1862


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