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Lycopene factory from corn 'leftovers'

31-Mar-2004

Boosting 'added-value' opportunities for companies working with corn, new research from government scientists on a fungus could hold the key to using corn fibre as a factory for the production of the potent antioxidant lycopene, making it a far cheaper alternative to sourcing the carotenoid from tomatoes, writes Lindsey Partos.

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists genetically modified the fungus Fusarium sporotrichioides to manufacture the antioxidant lycopene from the cheap corn fibre material - the 'leftovers' of making ethanol.

The ARS findings revealed this week could mean that in the near future ingredients firms could have cheaper sources for lycopene, as well as other carotenoids. A fact that will contribute both to the bottom line and advantageous pricing policies to gain greater market share.

Ingredients firms working in today's climate are turning to speciality concepts to improve profits. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of health-promoting foods where heavy investment in R&D is starting to pay off.

Lycopene, the pigment that makes tomatoes red, is gaining in popularity as a nutraceutical as new science uncovers the potential health benefits locked into this powerful antioxidant. Lycopene is thought to reduce risk of prostate cancer and fight heart disease.

In the modified fungus, geneticist Timothy Leathers, at the ARSNational Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Illinois sees a potential way to mass-producelycopene from ethanol co-products like corn fibre rather than extractand purify the carotenoid from tomatoes.

"Corn fibre is ideal because it's abundant and costs about five cents a pound. The US ethanol industry generates four million tons of the fibre annually, and sells itas livestock feed to avoid disposal fees," said Leathers.

According to the scientist, proof-of-concept studies showed that when cultured in lab flasks, the modified fungus produced 0.5 milligrammes of lycopene per gramme of dry weight within six days.

The plan now is to scale up the studies by culturing the fungus in fermenters on a growth mediumcontaining the corn fibre or DDGS.

As a first step the team 'short-circuited' the metabolic pathways of F. sporotrichioides, through which it makes natural trichothecene toxins. Using a patented recombinant technique (6,372,479), the team 're-wired' the fungus with new genes for making lycopene. ARS patented the microbe on February 24 (6,696,282).

A recent report on the European carotenoids market from analysts Frost and Sullivan has highlighted the potential of relatively new entrants such as lycopene and lutein, while warning that public awareness must be raised if this potential is to be reached.

The growing interest in functional foods is driving demand for these new carotenoids, the report says. More traditional carotenoids such as beta-carotene, astaxanthin and canthaxanthin, which still account for the bulk of the €285 million European market, were used predominantly as animal feed and colourants. The market is expected to grow to €344 million by 2010.

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