Bonus Content: A History of Innovation
The National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) in Peoria, Illinois, has become synonymous with scientific excellence and innovation in its quest to develop new biobased products and processes from plant, microbial, and other renewable resources.
A yellowfever mosquito (Aedes aegypti) in
the late stages of infection with an
experimental biocontrol strain of Aspergillus.
(Jose Luis Ramirez, D3926-1)
In the 1940s, the then-named Northern Regional Research Center originally focused its efforts on creating new, value-added markets for two major Midwestern crops: corn and wheat. Soybeans were later added to the list, followed most recently by lesquerella, meadowfoam, pennycress, and other novel oilseed crops. Managed collections of bacteria and fungi, particularly yeasts, often played key roles in expanding the market for these crops.
Methods for mass-producing the antibiotic penicillin, the cornstarch-based absorbent polymer Super Slurper, the fat-replacing “Trim” product line derived from oats and other grains, and the oil- and water-based encapsulating agent Fantesk exemplify some of the many patented inventions that have emerged from the center’s research over the past several decades.
Today, as it did then, NCAUR research proceeds with an eye toward benefits to producers, consumers, rural economies, national food security, and the environment. Close collaboration with private industry has helped push inventions off the proverbial lab bench and closer to entering the marketplace. The following are some recent examples:
• Biobased motor oils made from the fatty acids of canola, lesquerella, and other oilseed crops that have received American Petroleum Institute certification. A California company has licensed the ARS-developed technology. In road tests, taxi cab engines that used the biobased motor oils were cleaner and less varnished from combustion byproducts. The oils also biodegraded after use, promising to leave a lighter environmental footprint than mineral-oil-based formulations.
• A patent-pending process to formulate and mass produce a beneficial fungus for use against numerous insect pests, including Japanese beetles, white grubs, wireworms, and mosquitoes that can transmit diseases such as Zika, dengue fever, and malaria (of which there were 212 million reported cases in 2015 and 429,000 deaths worldwide).
• Antibiotic-free ethanol fuel production, thanks to beneficial lactic acid bacteria that prevent harmful bacteria from disrupting the fermentation of corn sugars by yeasts. In tests, these “good-guy” bacteria restored ethanol production to near-normal operating conditions while reducing or eliminating the need for antibiotics. The bacterial treatment could also reduce or eliminate antibiotic residues in dried distiller’s grains, a co-product fed to livestock.
• Feruloyl Soy Glycerides 33 (FSG33), a cosmetics ingredient based on an ARS-developed personal care product called SoyScreen that absorbs the sun’s harmful ultraviolet light. ARS chemists created SoyScreen by enzymatically combining ferulic acid, a natural antioxidant, with soy oil and later licensed the process to a Peoria, Illinois, firm. The company’s FSG33 and various spinoff ingredients are currently used in retail products sold by several major cosmetics makers.
• A bacteria-based fermentation process to make xylitol from corn cobs, corn fiber, and other crop byproducts rather than birch wood fiber, a primary source. Xylitol is used as a sugar substitute because it has one-third fewer calories, imparts a cool mint flavor, helps fight cavity-causing bacteria, and can pass through the human gut without involving insulin. The ARS procedure has been commercially licensed and could open the door to a domestic source of the versatile sweetener for use in chewing gum, toothpaste, mouthwash, and other products, a global market forecasted to exceed $1 billion by 2020.—By Jan Suszkiw, ARS Office of Communications.