Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Darpa Wants Soldiers to Eat like Pigs

Under a Darpa contract, microbiologists at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Ames, Iowa have been sorting through swine poo, to try to figure out how Wilbur and friends digest what humans usually can't: cellulose, the main fibrous part of plants.

With the right "cellulose-degrading beneficial bacteria in the gut," Darpa notes, soldiers could "increase the amount of energy" they get, "from either food rations or non-traditional foodstuffs."

These novel "fibr-biotics" are able to break down non-digestible fiber (cellulose and hemicellulose) into glucose, which can be directly absorbed for energy. When added to the diet of deployed soldiers, these novel fibr-biotics will be able convert nondigestible fiber into usable energy.
This will allow soldiers to eat grass and other plants when they don't have access to other food. Of course this could also be a ploy to get soldiers to quit complaining about MREs. "Son, you think that tastes bad? How 'bout you try eating grass for a week."

I think it could have other interesting applications as well. When a nation like Ethiopia goes into famine, how about giving them the ability to eat cellulose? Might save quite a few people from dying if they could eat additional types of plants and get more calories out of the food they eat.

And hard core environmentalists and vegans could choose a diet with an even smaller ecological footprint by eating grasses and getting more calories out of the other plant foods they are eating.
Phase 1 of this effort, dubbed "Intestinal Fortitude" has already wrapped up, according to the scientists at ARS' "Swine Odor and Manure Management Research Unit." Over 1,700 degrading bacteria -- many thought to work at digesting cellulose and hemicellulose -- have been isolated. "In preparation for Phase 2 of the grant, we have been characterizing 125 human cellulolytic and xylanolytic bacterial isolates obtained from human feces that were isolated by our collaborators at the [Army's] Natick Soldier Center," the researchers note. "Twelve isolates have been identified as potential fibro-biotics."

The other element -- sorry to get all scatological again -- is about diarrhea. During the early days of the Iraq war, the Agency observes, "70 percent of soldiers experienced at least one episode" of it. Darpa would like to dial that number back, by boosting "beneficial bacteria in the gut to protect soldiers from enteric disease and to increase energy derivation."
I'm a huge fan of this type of research on our microbial better half, and am excited to see that Darpa is picking up the tab.

via Wired Danger Room

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