Wood You Eat That?

Researcher develops method to turn cellulose into digestible starch

A Chinese researcher at Virginia Tech has come up with his own startling solution to the world hunger crisis: Let them eat wood! 

It may sound like a joke, but this technological development is anything but.  Starches constitute 50 to 60 percent of the human diet, but growing these food substances in the quantities necessitated by a rapidly expanding global population places a huge demand on terrestrial resources. Yet, as Zhang Percival, an associate professor at the University, noted, there is a bounty of naturally occurring plant matter that humans currently cannot take advantage of as a food resource, a quantity that measures about 100 times our current food resources. Humans don’t consume these plants because our systems cannot digest cellulose, the material basis for most flora. 

Through synthetic biology, Zhang has developed a method of turning cellulose into digestible particles. The process uses enzymes to break down grass, crop residue, and even wood, into amylose. Amylose is the same component that comprises 20 to 30 percent of common food starches and carbohydrates.

Zhang’s final synthesized food product closely resembles cornstarch in structure. And due to its slow metabolic rate, ingestion of this synthetic starch would avoid blood sugar spikes, keeping diabetes risk low and energy efficiency high. 


At the moment, the process is still too expensive to be implemented on a large scale, but Zhang hopes that, as world resources continue to dwindle in the face of global population growth, his technology will play a role in solving impending food crises.