Generations Of Discovery in Ag Research

by Kate O’Hara
National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research

“I know of nothing so pleasant to the mind, as the discovery of anything which is at once new and valuable—nothing which so lightens and sweetens toil, as the hopeful pursuit of such discovery. And how vast, and how varied a field is agriculture, for such discovery.” —Abraham Lincoln, 1859

One way or another, most people have at least some experience with the convenience of disposable diapers. And many in the Peoria area know that the technology in those absorbent wonders is based on Super Slurper, and that it came from Peoria’s Ag Lab—the USDA ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, or NCAUR.

Far less familiar are the prequel and sequel to the Super Slurper story. The full power of this story is found in the expanded version that demonstrates more clearly the value of yesterday’s federal research on our present and on our future. After nearly 75 years, NCAUR is a strong example of the benefits that accrue with long-term research, and the Super Slurper story represents a vibrant thread running through that timeline.

From Recognition to Realization
As usual with research and development, the product potential of the Super Slurper technology was recognized long before it was realized. Beyond the scientific challenges are market and business challenges, all with accompanying risks, financial demands and even political issues that require significant time to play out and be addressed. Going from fundamental concept to full commercialization can take decades. Once that stone has been tossed into the water, the impact ripples out into additional products and benefits—again, maybe decades to realize.

The prequel to the Super Slurper account occurred roughly 30 years before the original technology was developed—all the way back to the early beginnings of the lab. NCAUR, or NRRL as it was known then, was opened in 1940 and assigned to find new uses for corn and wheat. To better understand the complex carbohydrate known as starch, a major component in wheat and corn, the lab was set up with a Starch and Dextrose Division. Early work from this division included basic polymer research that in the 1960s provided the foundation for Super Slurper.

The familiar account is that Super Slurper, developed in the 1970s, became one of the most commercially successful technologies in the history of the USDA Agricultural Research Service and NCAUR. While previous super-absorbent materials could hold several hundred times their weight in liquid, this new substance made from corn starch could hold 2,000 times its weight in liquid. Uses were found in multiple industries—not just for baby diapers, but in medical and surgical materials and dressings, in reusable gel cooling packs, to help germinate and establish small horticulture plants, and more.

The sequel to the Super Slurper account occurred roughly 30 years after the original technology was developed, when yet another major application was developed. Early in the 2000s, NCAUR researchers partnered with Absorbent Technologies Inc. (ATI) to streamline polymer processing methods and form the basis for a new plant growth and water-conserving product called Zeba®. Today, ATI develops, produces and markets starch-based superabsorbent products and ingredients in the United States and internationally to use water more efficiently. Zeba is also found in the Water Smart technology in Scotts Turf Builder® products.

The scientists in research often take a back seat to their technologies. But as Cote and Finkenstadt point out in their 2008 paper, A History of Carbohydrate Research at the USDA Laboratory in Peoria, Illinois, “It is impossible to separate contributions in the history of science from the individuals responsible for them.” When NCAUR first opened, the team of carbohydrate scientists was assembled and led by Dr. Roy L. Whistler, who later went on to establish the Whistler Center for Carbohydrate Research at Purdue University. One of Prof. Whistler’s students was Dr. William Doane, who was later employed at NCAUR and is one of the co-inventors of Super Slurper. His son and the next-generation chemist, Steve Doane, was a partner in both ATI and in developing the next generation of Super Slurper.

Generations of Researchers
As Dr. Whistler represents a first generation of researchers at NCAUR, and Dr. Doane a second, there is a third generation of scientific excellence at the Peoria lab working to “provide the world a more healthful food supply, new medicines, new plastics and a more productive industrial base” (Cote/Finkenstadt). These scientists maintain NCAUR’s unique focus on both foundational and applied research.

Keenly aware of the lab’s legacy and the importance of a fourth generation of researchers to carry on the science, they also support a strong volunteer program designed to encourage scientific careers and interest over a broad range of ages. For example, junior high and senior high students can apply for programs that feature hands-on time at the lab benches and plenty of one-on-one conversation with scientific personnel; a program for college students provides a week-long science immersion. As these current researchers were mentored by the second-generation scientists, they have begun to mentor the next generation. After all, there are plenty of research stories and sequels to be written at NCAUR. iBi


The Ag Lab At A Glance
NCAUR produces the information and technologies that:

  • protect the environment and drive the economy by making renewable products and processes that are commercially viable
  • enable food producers and processors to provide safe, secure and healthy foods and improve the consumers’ quality of life.

2009-2011 OUTPUTS

  • Scientific publications: 755
  • Scientific meetings/presentations: 516
  • Patent applications: 20

RESOURCES

  • Annual operating budget: $32 million
  • Total research staff: 177
  • PhD researchers: 85
  • Disciplines: chemical engineering, entomology, genetics, molecular biology, plant pathology, chemistry, food technology, microbiology, physical science, plant physiology.

A DIFFERENT PATH
While Super Slurper was classical polymer chemistry from NCAUR’s early Starch & Dextrose Division, other research followed an early example of biotechnology.

First-generation NCAUR scientist Allene Jeanes and her colleagues discovered bacteria and enzymes that made a variety of dextran particularly well suited to generate a variety of materials. In 1950, they began a high-priority project to develop a blood plasma extender with dextran as the source. This work resulted in the saving of countless lives, from the battlefields of the Korean War to emergency rooms around the globe today.

A second-generation NCAUR scientist, George Inglett, discovered an enzyme that breaks down some of the carbohydrates in oats. This led to development in the 1980s of a family of food ingredients based on cereal glucans, known collectively as the Trim Technologies. These ingredients are used to provide consumers with high-fiber, low-fat, and low-glycemic processed foods.

The current third generation of NCAUR scientists uses enzymes to produce new compounds. Sucromalt is one such water-soluble compound, currently marketed as a low-glycemic sweetener for diabetics and in sustained-release energy bars and drinks. The same research team is now using enzymes to make water-insoluble gels with potential applications in the agrochemical and biomedical industries.


 

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