For many years, agricultural animals such as swine and poultry couldn’t digest the phosphorus found in most plant-based feeds like corn and soybean meal. That undigested phosphorus went straight into the soils. The pollution was only the first problem.
To keep the animals healthy, the industry supplemented the feed with digestible inorganic phosphorus, which is expensive as well as non-renewable. At current extraction rates, some estimates say that the earth’s inorganic phosphorus could be depleted in 50 to 80 years.
A new solution was needed and researchers found one: phytases, enzymes that help animals digest the phosphorus already in the feed. But the first generation of these commercial phytases had a number of problems, including catalytic inefficiency and lack of heat resistance.
Focused on issues of sustainability and nutrition, Xingen Lei, Animal Science, developed a phytase in the late 1990s that is three to four times as effective as its predecessors. Since then, it has become one of Cornell’s most successful and widely used technologies, and Lei and his lab have many more ideas in the pipeline.
Cornell Phytase Technology Goes Global
Lei began working on the new phytases in the early 1990s, with support from the Cornell Center for Advanced Technology in Biotechnology. Cloned from swine intestinal bacteria, the phytase and the production process took 10 years to develop and hone. Along the way, Cornell licensed the technology to Phytex, a small company based in Maine and later in Indiana.
Working with Phytex, Lei and his lab evolved the phytases successfully to fit the needs of manufacturers and industry. They were approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2005. To reach a global market, Phytex transferred the license to a larger company in Bulgaria, called Huvepharma.
“Now our enzyme is used in over 42 countries,” says Lei. “It takes about a quarter of the phytase market, the most popular enzyme supplement. About 80 percent of poultry feed and 70 percent of swine feed use phytase, so that’s quite a large percentage using our product.”
Phosphorus excretion in these animals, as a result, has been reduced by 30 to 50 percent. “That’s a huge impact on the environment,” Lei says. “It’s also cheaper and doesn’t deplete the phosphorus resources. It’s profitable for Cornell, but the most important thing is that this helped the science, nutrition, environment, and natural sustainability.”
Lei and his lab are still working to help Huvepharma develop the next generation of phytases, for more applications.
Algae as Feed and for Omega-3 Fatty Acids
While Lei’s phytases have been commercially available for over a decade, he has other technologies in the works that are just getting ready for market. One of those ideas proposes another revolution to what agricultural animals are fed.
“It’s profitable for Cornell, but the most important thing is that this helped the science, nutrition, environment, and natural sustainability.”
“The human population is increasing, so we need more food produced and more animals raised without using more land,” Lei explains. “So we need to find alternative, sustainable feeds and food for humans and animals.”
Corn and soybean meal, Lei says, competes with products for human consumption and are costly in terms of land and fresh water. What would be more sustainable? What could animals eat that humans don’t? Lei’s answer is marine microalgae.
There are many benefits. One is that the form of algae Lei uses is a byproduct of algal biofuel production. “After you take the oil out of the algae, or defat it, what you have left has very good nutrition applications,” Lei says. “The defatted biomass has more than 40 percent protein, which is similar to soybean meal. Corn has less than 10 percent. And you’re making the biofuel applications much more efficient and cost effective, with a new value-adding product.”
Lei continues, “This is an extra food that we can get without taking too much fresh water and land. This use of defatted algae as feed is probably as important if not more important than biofuel applications.”
Lei’s first phase of work—to determine which strands of algae work best and the proper ratios for feed supplementation—was supported by the United States Department of Energy (DOE) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). He worked as part of a consortium involving several Cornell faculty members, including Charles H. Greene, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Jefferson W. Tester, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Beth Ahner, Biological and Environmental Engineering.
Now, with renewed support, Lei is working again with another consortium of schools led by Duke University to explore how the algae can make animal foods healthier for human consumption. For example, the omega-3 fatty acids that we get from fish actually come from the algae that the fish eat. If chickens eat algae, they’ll ingest and produce those fatty acids. “So now we’re working to develop an omega-3, fatty-acid-enriched chicken and egg,” Lei says. “We’re going to make the egg and chicken similar to fish, which is healthier for human consumption.”
Feathers for Feed
For a decade, Lei has also been working to make another underused protein source available for animal feed—chicken feathers. “Chicken feathers are 85 percent protein,” Lei says. “Each chick produces about 200 grams of feathers, and there are billions of chickens produced in this country, so millions of metric tons of feathers.”
The challenge is that chicken feathers are not digestible. “What we’re trying to do is to find the enzymes that can hydrolyze the feathers, breaking them down into soluble proteins and amino acids that animals can use,” Lei says. “Then we can develop a new, tangible source of protein and save soybeans for humans’ consumption.”
Basic Research, a Strong Life Beyond the Lab
Translating basic research for industry applications makes things complicated, Lei says. “Some days you wish that you didn’t have to deal with it. You wish you could just have a standard project and go into the laboratory or classroom and work on it,” he explains. “But in the long run, when you can get through the difficult aspects, your research will have more impact—you will give your basic research a strong life beyond the lab.”
This emphasis is one of Cornell’s strengths, Lei continues. “Cornell is a land grant university, so we have a mission to help society. You can publish papers and give presentations, but with applications, the science is tested and validated. And it’s very rewarding to contribute and to engage with industry, society, and the general public.”
The translational focus in Lei’s lab contributes to industry and the environment; closer to home, it also benefits students. “It’s a great way to educate students because they can see the ultimate goal of the research,” Lei says. “They know that making a difference is possible and how rewarding it can be. This is true for graduate students and undergraduates. When I introduce a project that has a very real application, they get very excited—they can immediately relate to what the work will do in the world.”
Lei continues, “I feel privileged at Cornell because there have been so many opportunities to do things that would be difficult or impossible to do by myself. I collaborate with lots of people outside my department, and my students come from many different fields. This has made really creative work possible.”