Potatoes To Power Cars, Make Soft Drinks!

By M. Somasekhar
July 29, 2001 Frontline - India's National Magazine

HYDERABAD, July 29. Designer potatoes that can produce large amounts of fructose, a key ingredient in soft drinks and sweeteners and in future possibly produce ethanol to power automobiles?

Yes. Using gene fusion technology, a Group of French scientists, led by Prof Rajbir Sangwan, has produced a genetically-modified (GM) potato that churns out 19 times more fructose than the normal ones.

Annually millions of tonnes of fructose - the sweetest of all natural carbohydrates - are produced through industrial processes that use starch from maize. The starch is converted into fructose in a chemical plant using bacterial enzymes.

What Prof Rajbir Sangwan and team have done is inject the two genes coding enzymes that convert the starch stored in potatoes into fructose in the plant itself. When the potato is heated and mashed, the fructose is released, in effect turning the potato into a mini chemical factory.

It is well known that potatoes are storehouses of starch. "Converting the 40-60 per cent starch into fructose was a big challenge posed to us during 1996-97, when the French farmers produced a record output and a glut situation arose," explained Prof Sangwan.

In fact, the European Union had been urging farmers not to grow potatoes due to the glut. "We stepped in and chanced on the new discovery of applying gene fusion technology to engineer and boost direct production of fructose in processed potato tubers, which has higher industrial use," Prof Sangwan told Business Line .

The team modified the potato by inserting the genes coded enzymes called 'alpha amylase' and 'glucose isomerase'. While the first enzyme breaks down starch to glucose, the second converts glucose to fructose.

With the entire conversion mechanism firmly placed, the potato becomes a one-step pilot plant to directly produce fructose. To scale up the plant, all that is needed is to grow more GM potatoes.

The technology, which helped in making GM potatoes, demonstrated at the end of 2000, had potential agro-food industrial applications for both developed and developing countries, especially in India where potato production was high, Prof Sangwan, Director of the Bio-technology lab at the University of Picardie Jules Verne, France, said.

The professor, who was in Hyderabad recently participating in a bio-technology meeting, said by using gene fusion technology it would be possible to enhance nutrition levels of poor, diabetics, children and women through appropriate agro food processing strategies. Already multinational soft drink companies and producers of artificial sweeteners had evinced interest.

Having successfully fused two genes, the French scientist's team was now close to trying the technique to fuse three in a bid to get still higher yields of fructose, Prof Sangwan, a consultant to UNIDO and IAEA, said, an interesting challenge was posed by a Boston-based entrepreneur, who wanted to use the GM potatoes to produce low cost ethanol to fuel automobiles.

"We are convinced that the gene fusion technology can be used in fermentation and to make low cost ethanol. For the raw material we need an industry crop as growing potatoes on large scale." At the moment, the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) issues need to be thrashed out before a possible collaborative work can be started with the Boston entrepreneur, he said.

What about the opposition to GM foods evident in European countries? Dr Sangwan feels, "there is a sobering down of the opposition and as far as GM potato was concerned the bigger problem was IPR. We did not patent in the beginning, because I wanted the technology to be freely available to every country."

The gene fusion technology could find beneficial applications in processing of agro foods, fruits and also in cutting down post-harvest losses, which were very high in countries as India, Prof. Sangwan said. He, however felt the problem solving research approach was lacking in India, which was resulting in wastages and continued agony to farmers.

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