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Gillian Eggleston demonstrates the new test to Hedgardo M. Centella. Link to photo information
Chemist Gillian Eggleston (right) demonstrates the simple, rapid enzymatic mannitol test to Hedgardo M. Centella, a factory laboratory technician at Alma Sugarcane Factory, Lakeland, La. Click the image for more information about it.

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Sugar Makers Benefit From New Enzyme Test

By Erin Peabody
February 2, 2007

The sugar poured into coffee cups, cereal and favorite desserts seems so simple, so pure. The process for extracting it from unwieldy, 6-foot-tall stalks of cane? Hardly so.

That's why Agricultural Research Service (ARS) chemist Gillian Eggleston has spent the last 13 years trying to tackle processing-related challenges in sugarcane factories. Eggleston, who works at the agency's Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans, has already helped Louisiana's factories solve one of their stickiest issues: dextran.

Dextran is a thick, viscous material that builds up in damaged cane. It's caused by sugar-hungry bacteria that are attracted to the wounds of just-harvested or burned cane. The bacteria, Leuconostoc mesenteroides, produce the troublesome dextran as a byproduct of their feeding.

With its thick, gummy nature, dextran can clog the pipes in which cane juice is heated and clarified. Enzymes, called dextranases, must then be brought in to break down this sticky polysaccharide.

Until Eggleston's involvement, however, factory operators like Adrian Monge of Cora Texas Manufacturing Company in White Castle, La., were pretty fuzzy about which dextranase enzymes to use.

The enzymes are sold in a dizzying array of concentrations and units of measurements, leaving factory operators basically guessing about their performance. Also, little has been known about how best to use the enzymes.

Spending the bulk of her research time out of the lab and inside sugar factories, Eggleston discovered more than one sweet solution to the dextran problem.

First, she developed a simple test, known as the Eggleston titration method, for evaluating an enzyme's potency at the factory. Now, she's able to advise processors about how and where to apply the dextranase for optimal usage.

These research findings are paying off. As much as a 95 percent reduction in dextran is being seen in the five factories—of Louisiana's 12—which have adopted Eggleston's technologies.

Read more about the research in the February 2007 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.