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Chance Discovery Leads to New Vegetable Oil Uses

People have been known to bring strange things to work, though few are encouraged to do this by their supervisors.

But coworkers of Agricultural Research Service chemist Ching T. Hou always find him appreciative when they bring in some soil or water from their neighborhoods.

This bit of random sampling for bacteria paid off recently when Erika Hertenstein, a technician working with Hou, brought in some water from a pond on her family's hog farm near Morton, Illinois.

The water contained a bacterial strain known as Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

Using this bacterium, Hou developed a process to convert oleic acid found in soybean, corn, sunflower, and safflower oils to a compound called 7,10-dihydroxy-8-(E)-octadecenoic acid.

"Because of its molecular structure, this acid is an excellent starting material for creating different chemical compounds," he says.

The process Hou developed offers a better way to convert vegetable oils to compounds that can be used in plasticizers, lubricants, and paints or in the preparation of new antibiotics.

ARS and Hou applied for a patent on the oleic acid conversion process in 1996. Genencor International, a biotechnology company in San Francisco, California, is interested in the organism and the process for making the new compound.

Scientists at ARS' National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research at Peoria, Illinois, search for new uses for crops and their processing by-products. -- By Linda Cooke, ARS.

Ching T. Hou is in the USDA-ARS Microbial Genomics and Bioprocessing Research Unit, National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, Peoria, IL; phone (309) 681-6263.

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