Why Science Is Striving To Toughen Up The Tuber

Mention starch, and most people think of French fries--or shirts. But starch is also a key component of plastics. And manufacturers hope to tailor its production in potatoes and other vegetables to improve product strength.

Pennsylvania State University plant physiologist Jack C. Shannon is out to make this a reality. The challenge lies in altering the proportions of the two main starch components. One is amylose, a molecule that makes up about 25% of starch and gives plastics their strength and resilience. The other is amylopectin, which is used as a food additive. Plastics manufacturers seek a greater percentage of amylose.

Shannon's team is studying microtubers, grown from pieces of potato in a special culture, to understand how these components of starch form inside a potato cell. Microtubers contain the same tissues as regular potatoes but can be produced more uniformly and have a much shorter life cycle--facilitating research. It's too soon to tell when a payoff might come. Meanwhile, Shannon is hoping to attract industry funding.

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