Cellulose is an organic polysaccharide — a sugar. It is the main component of plant cell walls, which makes it the most common carbohydrate on the planet. It is sadly non-digestible by humans. We lack the digestive system, like you’d find in a cow, to break down cellulose. A team of researchers from Virginia Tech is hoping to change that unfortunate fact, though. And no, they’re not grafting cow stomachs into humans. In a new experiment, professor Y.H. Percival Zhang has successfully transformed cellulose into starch, which we can eat just fine.Both cellulose and starch have the same chemical formula, explains Zhang. The difference is in the way they are bonded together. Cellulose is composed of a chain of glucose molecules that could be thousands of units long. Starches are simpler carbohydrates also composed of glucose, but with fewer bonds than cellulose. If you need a visual aid, cotton fibers are the purest form of cellulose we have. Could you snack on a cotton ball? No, you could not. A nice starchy potato or some rice? That’s a biologically sound meal!The researchers used corn stover in their testing. Stoving, by the way, is the totally unappetizing mixture of corn stems, husks, and leaves of the corn plant. With an enzymatic treatment, the bonds holding the cellulose together are broken, thus allowing the molecules to reconfigure into starch. About 30% of the cellulose becomes starch, with the remainder ending up simple glucose suitable for ethanol production.While corn plants were used in the test, the researchers believe the same process should work on any plant. The process, called “simultaneous enzymatic biotransformation and microbial fermentation” should be easy to scale up to an industrial level. It also has very little environmental impact — no chemical waste, little power usage, and no pricey equipment to buy. The enzymes used to hydrolyze the bonds are immobilized on magnetic nanoparticles that can be collected and re-used.This could make food production easier as the population continues to increase, but starch can also be used in the production of packaging, adhesives, and hydrogen storage. It’s neat science.