'Super enzymes' could lower cost of biofuel production

October 22 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Environment   Year: 2016   Rating: 1

One of the biggest obstacles in using plant-based biomass (e.g. non-food crops/bio waste) to energy is reducing the cost and energy required to break down the strong cell walls. A way to reduce the costs of biofuels and to use waste biomass to energy, is to find enzymes capable of eating through cell walls.

Researchers at the US Agricultural Research Service (ARS) now believe they have found one of these ‘super enzymes’. ARS Bioproduct Chemistry and Engineering Research Unit’s Charles Lee went looking for enzymes inside dank soil beneath 25-foot-high piles of decaying rice straw, and from the murky liquid from dairy-waste lagoons! (This is where super enzymes hang out to avoid media attention…)

Low temperature = Low cost
Lee’s team then sorted the microbe genes to find the blueprint for super enzymes. From the dairy lagoon sample, the team found a microbe with a gene that they’ve named xyn8. Xylanase is an enzyme that specializes in breaking down xylan, a troublesome component of the hemicellulose in plant cell walls.

Xylanase works well in temperatures regarded as “cold” in the biofuels business. The research group believes that this ‘cold-loving’ enzyme could sidestep the need for the costly heating typically needed at today’s biorefineries.

Read more about the research in the October 2008 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

Material sourced from press release

Image credit – Peggy Greb, ARS

Image: Chemist Charles Lee inspects a petri dish containing xylan, a component of the hemicellulose in plant cell walls. Bacteria that produce xylanase were streaked onto the dish in a wavy pattern, and the clear areas are where the xylanase is degrading the xylan.

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