At its core, the purpose of the 2016 UCSC iGEM Team is to transform the two distinct crises of agricultural waste and the rising obesity rates epidemic into one, mutual solution via the application of synthetic biology.
Of all the challenges facing the United States, few are as widespread and pertinent to the average American citizen than our national health. Two out of every three adults and one out of three children are considered either overweight, or obese. Given the overwhelming correlation between obesity and diabetes, it is of no surprise that rates of diabetes, the 7th leading cause of death in our nation, are soaring. But diabetes isn’t the only risk. Overweight or obese individuals are constantly faced with significantly increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, liver disease, osteoarthritis, cancer, and stroke; not to mention problems linked to emotional health, cognitive function, and motivation. The medical costs for treatment of these diseases can be severe, especially for the average American family, who needs to provide money for food and a home, let only costs such as education or transportation.
Additionally, food waste, the continual discard of one of humanity’s most precious resources, is an ever-growing tragedy. Despite the precious nature of food and the immense resource investment that comes along with it, 40 percent of food is never eaten. To give context to the scale of this issue, crop production and transportation comprises 50 percent of U.S. land, 10 percent of the U.S. energy budget, and a staggering 80 percent of U.S. freshwater. The most common graveyard for these crops, landfills, additionally contribute a majority of methane and nitrous oxide emissions. A significant portion of this waste, however, does not simply take the form of unfinished dinner plates and reluctance to leftovers. Rather this waste is exhibited via agricultural by-products, which is inedible biomass produced with crops, such as hulls, stems, stalks, and so on. Agricultural by-products, while frequently rich in both sugar and energy, are often either vastly underutilized or entirely wasted.
So what does a sugar-rich source of biomass, representing a tragedy in sustainability efforts, have to do with rising rates of widespread, unhealthy levels of caloric intake? Well, with a bit of ambition, a dash of creativity, and hint of metabolic engineering, the 2016 UCSC iGEM found its calling: To convert agricultural by-products into a high value, zero-calorie sweetener via the application of synthetic biology. We could redeem our sustainability woes by giving agricultural waste a newfound purpose, while also expanding accessibility to zero-calorie options by reducing costs for non-caloric sweeteners.
We would like to clarify that solving the obesity crisis on a nationwide scale is a complex, multifaceted problem which requires multiple changes throughout our society and culture. However, we feel that zero-calorie sweeteners have the potential to provide obvious and substantial relief to those struggling with obesity by providing beneficial, alternative solutions to high-calorie foods and snacks; and in doing so reduce caloric intake for those who need it most. Given the debilitating amount of stress placed on the wallets of average American families, we saw cost reduction as an immediate way to expand accessibility for these sweeteners.
That is how we came across erythritol. A zero calorie sweetener, erythritol is a four-carbon sugar alcohol that quickly piqued our team’s interest, as it is in many ways an ideal sweetener. It is delicious, low-glycemic, has the ‘mouthfeel’ we associate with sugar, is popular among the ‘all-natural’ community’, has no aftertaste, and is versatile in its ability to be used in a wide variety of applications. But what stands out about erythritol is not just its qualities, but its high cost. erythritol is one of the most expensive sweeteners on the market. Therefore, it was the exact sweetener we were looking for.
The entire experience of our summer-long journey is wrought upon these website pages for you to share with us. It has truly been a rich, unparalleled educational experience for all of us.The invaluable hands-on experience we gained, and the collaboration skills we developed for large-team environments will continue to guide us throughout the rest of our education and careers.