Julie Goddard, food science, recently received a four-year, $489,100 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to improve the efficiency and environmental sustainability of making value-added agricultural products such as emulsifiers from starch or seaweed. She will collaborate with Vince Rotello, chemistry, an expert in nanoparticles and magnetic nanomaterials, in a new approach they hope will move the industry forward with natural, re-usable enzymes for processing raw materials into naturally derived food additives.
Value-added agricultural processing is a multi-million dollar industry that turns low-cost, highly abundant materials such as seaweed, sorghum, hay, field corn and soybeans into widely useful products such as modified food starch, thickeners, some flavors and stabilizers used in many food products. “It’s adding some kind of functionality that makes a material able to do something it couldn’t do before for the food and agricultural world,” Goddard notes.
Current processes use synthetic catalysts in solvents that withstand many different temperatures and pH conditions encountered in processing, but they tend to be expensive and less environmentally friendly, Goddard explains. Lower cost, more environmentally friendly enzyme catalysts can do the same task, but at present these are less stable and do not retain their structure and function well enough to be re-useable for these processes. They are often lost or inactivated when conditions change only slightly.
Goddard and her team, including postdoctoral researcher and enzymologist Joey Talbert, do research at the interface of materials and biology, for example materials interacting with enzymes, antimicrobials, or other biological activity.
Rotello is an expert at designing nanoparticles to perform many different functions. In this case, the research team hopes to stabilize natural enzymes by locking nanoparticles onto their surface to hold them physically and chemically in place. Magnetic nanocomplexes would then associate around a larger, oil-based core microcapsule. Overall, the process will stabilize enzymes and improve their solubility, while the nano size helps with recovering them for re-use.
Goddard explains, “Enzymes are natural protein chemical reactors that are extremely specific to a certain chemical reaction, and they are environmentally friendlier than synthetic catalysts, but they don’t fare as well as their synthetic counterparts because they are so sensitive, and they are not always very re-useable. Our goal is to improve the stability of enzymes so they are recoverable, while helping them retain their activity so the industry can move toward using more environmentally friendly solvents.”