According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30 to 40 percent of food in the United States is wasted. This massive problem is attributed to a number of factors, including spoilage, over-ordering, and damage to food by transport or pests. A USDA study in 2010 estimated this problem weighs 133 billion pounds, and costs almost $162 billion annually.

While there are national programs in place to help reduce this number, University of Kentucky Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering professor Dr. Jian Shi and his students are using research to tackle the growing issue. Lipo-chitooligosaccharides, or LCOs, are molecules produced by bacteria that eat spoiling food, specifically, legumes. Shi’s group is looking at cultivating one specific LCO, bradyrhizobium japonicum, on our food waste, and applying it to the root system of non-legume plants, like tomatoes, for a natural fertilizer. The possibility of this research reaches far and wide, and chips away at that waste problem – potentially converting our waste into a high-value commodity like fertilizer. This fertilizer could be used for plant growth or soil amendment, becoming a catalyst for change.

KY NSF ESPCoR’s previous focus – Powering the Kentucky Bioeconomy for a Sustainable Future, aligned perfectly with Dr. Shi’s research, and thus funded the work of student Abby Olaleye, who worked directly under Dr. Shi. The relationship formed has been very positive for Abby, and part of a successful experience.

“I would like to believe that my EPSCoR projects would open future doors for me…(EPSCoR) has helped me to be independent but also to know when to ask for help.”

“Over time Dr. Shi has become like a mentor to me both within and outside this project. He continuously encourages me to be involved in activities that can help me develop my skill set. I randomly stop by his office and I can’t remember a time he’s turned me away or did not explain what I needed help with.”

Abby believes her research with B. japonicum is a necessity, even though the original medium – sorghum – changed to food waste in the middle of the project.

“The funding has enabled me to explore a different avenue to a possibly useful resource. I started my research in Dr. Shi’s lab working on producing LCOs on sorghum, but the funding has provided the ability to explore food waste as an option. I believe food waste is a more sustainable approach because there is so much of it in excess and being able to create out of waste would beyond helpful in the long run.”

The food waste project has also enhanced Abby’s understanding and passion about sustainability.

“…through my experience I’ve developed a big love for sustainability because I previously didn’t pay much attention to how we’re running out of resources. This project has helped me grow an appreciation for how the importance of agricultural in sustainable living.”

Abby will be a senior at UK this year, and recently received an internship with MEMStim this summer, a medical research corporation that specifically deals with Parkinson’s tremors, chronic pain, and hearing loss solutions. She is grateful for how KY NSF EPSCoR has allowed her grow as a research professional.

“I would like to believe that my EPSCoR projects would open future doors for me. With my internship with MEMStim I now have work experience which I’m grateful for particularly because it’s a startup company…(EPSCoR) has helped me to be independent but also to know when to ask for help.”

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