Next West Slope growth industry could be right under your foot

People are always asking me what the most-abundant, naturally occurring polymer in nature is. I’ve always said that it was cellulose, the material that makes up the cell walls of plants. But recently I have learned that there is a close runner-up.

OK, my wife says I can’t say that people are always asking me about the most abundant polymer in nature because that isn’t true. She says she knows good and well that no one has ever asked about that, and I just made it up, so I could go off on one of my tangents. 

I guess she’s right. People mostly ask me, “What good are mosquitoes?” or “Are quarks real?” However, I don’t have any good answers for those two questions, and I have a doozy for the most abundant polysaccharide in nature.

A polymer is a chemical compound made of many, repeating, similar units, as a string of pearls. In the case of cellulose, it is a string of sugars that are made of six carbons, 10 hydrogens, and five oxygens, C6H10O5, repeated over and over. These can be joined to form fantastically long strings of sugars called polysaccharides. My wife prefers her polysaccharides broken down into simple sugars with a little chocolate added. 

However, a close second for most-abundant, naturally occurring polymer is a similar substance made up of eight carbons, 13 hydrogens, and five oxygens, C8H13O5, repeated over and over. Does this polymer sound almost like cellulose? It’s the second most-common polymer, again a polysaccharide, in nature. It is known as chitin, and it’s the component that makes up the exoskeletons of arthropods. 

Considering how many arthropods there are in the world, it shouldn’t be surprising that chitin is the second most-abundant polymer in the natural world. Nor should it be surprising that chitin has uses beyond making that creepy crunch when you step on a cricket. 

For example, chitin appears to be toxic to many plant pests and pathogens. This is ironic because many insects, which contain chitin, are plant pests. Interestingly, chitin also tends to keep many people away, especially when it is still part of the living insect. That condition is called entomophobia. My wife has it. 

Interestingly, chitin also appears to have a direct effect on plant nutrition and stimulates plant growth. Chitin also augments and amplifies the action of chitinolytic bacteria, bacteria that eat chitin, and that seems to enhance plant growth. Who knows why.

But it doesn’t end there. Chitin can be converted to a substance called chitosan, sort of like cellulose can be converted to many different materials.  Considering how similar chitin and cellulose are, I wonder if one could convert chitin to alcohol. That would put a whole new meaning to scorpions in tequila bottles. 

Anyway, chitosan has been used to make a plastic film for surrounding seeds, filters for water treatment, flocculation, and tobacco filtration. Chitosan also has uses in paper making, fruit juice clarification, fruit preservation, and in some fabric dyes. 

Chitin has a remarkable compatibility with living tissue and is used in treating burn patients, for some types of bandages, and weight-loss programs. And, of course, people already eat crab and shrimp, which are basically only marine cockroaches. People generally don’t like me mentioning this. 

Most of our chitin and chitosan come from waste products of the shellfish industry. Crabs may have as much as 70 percent chiton in their exoskeleton. However, many insects are between 30 and 50 percent chitin. Raising insect to harvest chitin and chitosan could become a whole new agricultural industry waiting to be developed here in western Colorado. 

Wanting to capitalize on this new money-making opportunity, I have started raising insects in our garage. Contact me for your own locally produced chitin. 

Now my wife says, “You can’t just go around saying you raise insects in our garage when you don’t ... You don’t, do you?”  Err, I think I’d better go now!

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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