URBANA-CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — U of I researchers are changing the world through life sciences. One team is working to capture genetic information from elephant DNA while another team is converting food waste and swine manure into pavement binder and transportation fuels.

Elephant dung DNA furthers conservation efforts

U of I researcher Alida de Flamingh leads a team of researchers with U of I animal sciences professor Alfred Roca. Their research is focused on streamlining DNA collection for elephant conservation analysis, utilizing a new source: elephant dung. The process is faster, more cost-effective, and more comprehensive than previous methods, and allows samples to be gathered without jeopardizing the animal’s safety.

De Flamingh and her team are using postcard-sized data-collection cards to preserve the samples, so they can be stored for months without refrigeration, reducing the costs previously associated with fecal matter DNA extraction.

The team first collected samples from zoo elephants courtesy of the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Florida and the Dallas Zoological Gardens. Their tests revealed that even three-day-old dung yielded enough DNA for genomic studies of the elephants.

The data showed vast amounts of information about the elephant, including the microbial composition of its gut, its habitat, and its diet. The researchers even found the DNA of butterflies and other arthropods that interact with the dung after it is deposited.

Researchers found the results are also comparable to those obtained via blood samples. De Flamingh said she and her team are researching elephants with this method at only a fraction of the cost of other current approaches.

Swine manure into pavement conversion

U of I agricultural and biological engineering professor Yuanhui Zhang said many of our daily-life products are created from crude oil, including fuel, lubricants, heating oils, asphalt, and plastics. As petroleum will eventually run out, Zhang’s team plans to use a hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL) reactor system to convert biowaste into crude oil through a high-temperature, high-pressure process.

The crude oil will then be separated into transportation fuel and a bio binder that can be mixed with gravel to create asphalt for road pavement. The HTL wastewater, which Zhang said is high in nutrients, can be recovered for fertilizer use.

The U.S. produces millions of tons of food and agricultural waste each year, costing billions of dollars for collection and management. Zhang said creating bioproducts can help “reduce the high costs of managing waste, mitigate adverse environmental impact, and sustain economic development.” It can also lead to a significant reduction in landfills.

This research is funded through a $2.5 million USDA grant.