Researchers at National University of Singapore have figured out a way to use food waste to derive a drug to treat Parkinson’s disease and amino acid essential for collagen production. It is no secret that food waste is in abundance in our world, in the US alone there is 80 billion pounds of food waste each year. Although food waste may seem harmless, it has grave consequences for the environment, with global food waste contributing to 6% of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to that, it has economic implications as the food waste equates, in 2010 the loss due to waste and food loss was $162 billion. But what if we can reverse this and turn waste in products we need?
This is pricelessly what researchers at National University of Singapore did over the course of four years, which is the time it took them to develop a unique and a multidisciplinary method which allowed them to extract precious products from waste. To do so, the researchers took advantage of the fundamentally differing roles of chemistry and biology in synthesis process. “Chemical processes are rapid …but they can only produce simple substances. On the other hand, biological processes are a lot slower, and require very specific conditions for the microbes to flourish but can produce complex substances which tend to be of higher value. By combining both chemical and biological processes, we can reap the benefits of both to create high value materials,” explains Zhou Kang from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the principal investigator of the study. This ingenious method of using complementary yet differing ways of extracting materials allowed researchers to extract a widely used drug for Parkinson’s from crustacean shell waste at a fraction of the cost.
The yield of this method was similar to the traditional way of extracting this drug, however, it was much more economically viable, as the cost of crustacean shell waste in Singapore is $100, which is about 4 to 6 times less expensive than the traditional ingredient. In addition to that, the team of researchers also used wood waste to produce Proline, a widely used amino acid important in collage production. Thus through understanding and leveraging subtle differences chemistry and biology, the researchers were able to produce Proline at a higher yield, as well as reduce the cost of production. The researchers hope to generalize this method to other forms of abundant waste, such as carbon dioxide and wastepaper, which allow our society to move away from using costly processes and while taking better care of our planet by turning waste into high valued product.
The the generalization of these methods may allow the industry to shift gears into more economically friendly ways of producing life saving drugs. Thus, the team behind this method hopes to expand and scale their work by partnering with industry leaders to commercialize this technology. Through this research we can once again see the interconnected and interdisciplinary nature of our universe, as well the inherent ingenuity and creativity that is at the heart of science disciples. Often times when learning science, we just see the rules, but it is once we are able to combine the rules and use them creatively that we can bring about exceptional innovation.