Alligator processors in Louisiana annually generate about 175,000 pounds of wild alligator bones and connective tissues and more than 1 million pounds of farm-raised alligator bones and associated materials. Texas, Georgia and Florida combined produce about 800,000 pounds of farm-produced alligator waste each year. Although these materials are discarded, they could be the source of a valuable product – collagen.
“Alligator bones are an excellent source of collagen,” said Jack Losso
, an LSU AgCenter researcher in the Department of Food Science
. “We have demonstrated alligator bones contain type I collagen with biochemical and thermal properties similar to type I collagen from the skin and bones of black drum and sheepshead fish.”
Traditionally, collagen has been obtained from the skins of land-based animals such as cows and pigs. Because of the incidence of mad cow disease around the world, the use of collagen and collagen-derived products from skins of these animals has been questioned. As a result, marine collagen from warm-water fish and their by-products is in high demand, Losso said. Medical users are looking for these types of collagen because they are stable at human body temperature.
Collagen is unique among body proteins because it is the single-most important protein of connective tissue. Collagen molecules are classified into 21 types, which differ in their sequence, weight, structure and function, but they can be broadly subdivided into families. Types I and II collagens, which make up one family, are mostly found in animal skins and cartilage.
To find additional sources of collagen from cold-blooded animals, Losso led a team investigating the bones of farm-raised alligators. The research team includes fisheries agents Mark Schexnayder
and Mark Shirley along with Food Science Department faculty members Masahiro Ogawa, Michael Moody, Jon Bell and Ralph Portier. They have been working with a local seafood processor, Harlon Pearce from Harlon’s LA FISH in Kenner, La., on a National Sea Grant-sponsored grant to develop value-added products from fish wastes.
Their research has resulted in U.S. patent 7,109,300 issued Sept. 19, 2006, which describes a large-scale process for collagen extraction and purification from alligator bones and other calcified tissues.
The biochemical, biomedical and pharmaceutical industries are leading users of collagen, Losso said. Successful applications of collagen include the treatment of hypertension, urinary incontinence, pain associated with osteoarthritis, wound healing, tissue engineering for human organ implants, oral treatments for arthritis, and inhibiting new blood vessels to prevent cancer metastasis.
Beyond medicine, the cosmetic industry uses collagen extensively in personal care products. Traditional food applications of collagen include the preparation of gelatin and clarification of alcoholic beverages. The new areas of nutraceuticals and functional foods represent a $30 billion market that’s growing rapidly.
“Alligator collagen is one type of collagen that can take advantage of these new markets,” Losso said. “What we produce is almost pure. The next step is FDA certification. The nutraceutical industry is growing rapidly, and marine collagen is one of the stars of the show. We want our Louisiana business to be in a position to take advantage of these new markets.” Losso said an important aspect of using alligators as a source of collagen is that the process uses food-grade materials and equipment for extracting collagen from alligator materials.
“The collagen is extracted in a water solution,” he said. “Everything is a food-grade process that’s generally recognized as safe.”
In addition to collagen, alligator carcasses yield two other compounds – elastin and proteoglycan – which are enzyme inhibitors. Losso and Schexnayder suspect there may be other important compounds to be found in alligator wastes.
The U.S. Department of Commerce through Sea Grant initially provided funding to study collagen from fish skins, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided funding for collagen from alligators. The researchers have received a second grant from the Sea Grant program.
Losso and Schexnayder have applied for a proof of concept grant from Greater New Orleans Inc. to fund making small batches of the alligator collagen to give to interested potential industrial partners.
“One of our objectives,” Schexnayder said, “is to make the waste stream from fish and alligator processing facilities into a positive cash flow instead of a business expense.”
(This article was published in the winter 2007 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)