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shrimp on a plate

CNN's Rick Lockridge reports on how farmers raise shrimp for uses other than food
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Chitin can be used as a paper, coating and crop enhancer
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Lowly shrimp shells could yield jumbo benefits, researchers say

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  • February 4, 1999
    Web posted at: 1:39 p.m. EST (1839 GMT)

    BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN) -- The part of the shrimp most people throw away could turn out to be the most valuable part, according to researchers in Thailand.

    That's because the shells of shrimp, crab and other crustaceans contain chitin, a starchy, plastic-like compound that some scientists believe is one of nature's most generous gifts.

    Chitin is, after wood, the most plentiful organic fiber on Earth. Researchers at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok say this resource could be used to create everything from wonder drugs to biodegradable plastics and crop enhancers for farmers.

    Chitin can also be used to heal wounds and as an agent in paper and textile manufacturing, says Willem F. Stevens, a researcher at the Asian Institute of Technology. (Audio 376 K/17 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

    Shrimp shell soup
    Shrimp shell soup used to make chitin   

    To extract chitin, the researchers create a purification bath for the shrimp shells. A squirt of bacteria -- the same bacteria used in yogurt -- is added to strip the protein out of the shells.

    The chitin that's left has some remarkable properities:

    • It's antifungal and antibacterial, but so easy on the skin that chitin membranes are being tested as a treatment for serious burn wounds.
    • Made into a waxy paper, chitin is nontoxic and quick to biodegrade.
    • Chitin syrup, when used to coat seeds, has been shown to improve crop yields by helping the seeds resist fungus and repel insects.

    Researchers say the product's inherent stickiness also could prove valuable in:

    • New blood-clotting drugs for hemophiliacs.
    • New sperm paralyzing contraceptives.
    • Fat-blocking drugs for dieters.

    Chitin and its more refined cousin, chitosan, already are available in diet-pill form.

    "If you take chitosan, you'll slim down even if you eat a lot," Stevens says.

    chitin powder
    Chitin powder   

    Thailand's Trang Seafood, which is sponsoring the chitin study, would like to find out if the discarded parts can be recycled into a money-making resource. Researchers at the Asian Institute of Technology believe that's possible, but that the startup costs will be high.

    "Well, I think that's why our faculties are really looking for the international connections," says Dr. C. Kwei Lin, a researcher at the institute. "Maybe foreigners would have the capital and be willing to invest in us."

    Already, Thailand's tasty black tiger shrimp play a starring role in world cuisine. Chitin experts are sure the shrimp will someday play an equally important role in medicine and industry.

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    Asian Institute of Technology
    AIT Organizational Units
    Chitin and Chitosan Association
    Marine Chemicals - Chitin
    Marine Chemicals - More information: Chitin & Chitosan
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