While many Americans are aware of the nation's need to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, Stephen F. Austin State University researchers have been working on another project - reducing dependence on foreign vitamins, specifically biotin.
While the biotin issue is less well known, it is important. Also known as vitamin H, biotin is a vital nutrient needed for the formation of fatty acids and glucose, which are essential for the production of energy, as well as the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and protein. Biotin stabilizes blood-sugar levels and aids in hair, cartilage and nail growth.
While biotin cannot be synthesized by humans, it is found naturally in foods like liver, salmon, bananas and carrots. It is also added to vitamin-fortified food products, like breakfast cereals. Corn, alfalfa and oilseed meals are natural sources of biotin used in animal feeds, especially poultry feed.
"There is no U.S. manufacturer of biotin," said Dr. Bea Clack, SFA associate professor of biotechnology. "The United States is at the mercy of three foreign manufacturers for a product that's used heavily in the vitamin industry, for both humans and animals. It's an essential nutrient with a limited supply; therefore the market is very volatile."
With the global market for biotin exceeding $65 million annually, SFA researchers at the Science Research Center began work eight years ago to find a better way to produce biotin.
"The process used in China to create biotin is very hazardous and wouldn't meet our environmental standards," Clack said. "I worked with one of our graduates, Alan Youngblood of Douglass, to produce biotin using a fermentation method that is more environmentally friendly."
After a patent for the process was applied for and received, an exclusive sublicense was issued to Archer Daniels Midland Company, one of the world's largest processors of soybeans, corn, wheat and cocoa. Headquartered in Decatur, Ill., ADM is evaluating commercialization of biotin using the technology developed at SFA.
Clack said industry-driven and sponsored research projects - like the biotin project - can provide newer equipment and other resources for SFA's biotechnology program. SFA currently offers a master's degree in biotechnology, and most students have undergraduate degrees in one of the sciences, such as biology, chemistry or computer science.
"All of our biotech graduates go directly into the industry or enter into either Ph.D. or M.D. programs," Clack said. "Our graduates who enter the workforce usually have several job offers and are able to select the job of their choice."
SFA's biotin research yielded additional results that might develop into other patentable processes or products, Clack added. Research is currently being conducted to examine those possibilities.