A team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) has developed a powerful new tool that promises to unlock the secrets of biomass degradation.  Understanding the chemical activities needed is a critical step in the development of cost-effective cellulose based biofuel creation.

Getting out the potential of cellulosic biofuels requires developing efficient strategies to extract the sugar molecules in biomass polymers such as cellulose. Microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi are capable of converting biomass to simple sugars, but through science’s history of biology they’ve been difficult to study using genetic approaches.

The scientist’s breakthrough makes it possible to perform genetic analysis on Cellvibrio japonicus, a promising bacterium that has long been known to convert biomass to sugars. Using a technique called vector integration, the team has developed a method to generate a mutation in any gene within the organism.

As a test of the technique, the team constructed a mutation that inactivated a key component of a protein complex called a Type II Secretion System, and the disruption of this system prevented the bacterium from efficiently converting biomass into sugars.

That proves for the first time that Cellvibrio uses the Type II Secretion System to secrete key enzymes for breakdown of biomass polymerase, thus providing key insight into how this bacterium obtains sugars from biomass.

The details of this method were published online on June 11 in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

Associate scientist David Keating at GLBRC, who led the team said, “Realizing the promise of cellulosic biofuels requires identifying more efficient methods of releasing sugars from biomass. This new genetic method will allow us to understand how bacteria carry out this conversion, which should provide new avenues for improving the industrial process.”

Getting a firmer handle on how to deconstruct plant matter is important for the assertion that the 21st century will be the century of biology coming true.

The University of Wisconsin news story quotes Professor and Eminent Scholar in Bioenergy Harry Gilbert, of the University of Georgia’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center explaining plant cell wall deconstruction is a very complex process that requires a large number of enzymes, many with overlapping specificities,  “As genetic systems for many bacteria that orchestrate this process have not been developed, the use of null mutations (inactivating specific genes) to explore the functional significance of specific enzymes has not been possible. Keating’s group has provided the ability to do that — inactivate specific genes in Cellvibrio japonicus — which displays an extensive plant cell wall degrading apparatus. This enables you to ask critical biological questions about how the system is regulated and how the enzymes work together to degrade this hugely complex molecule. This is a substantial and important development in the field.”

The problem of taking apart the complex chemical compositions that makes up biomatter is a very wide field.  It’s clear in a simple examination that the seaweed washing ashore is massively different from the redwood tree inland. Add in the experience of sawing through balsa wood and trying to get through hickory to add another sense.  Plants are widely diverse.

The idea is to get to the construction material the plants use – sugars.  Then convert sugars to the simple molecules of carbon with rich hydrogen content as seen in the light alcohols of methanol and ethanol as they both oxidize or burn cleanly and are expected to be excellent sources for fuel cell energy extraction.  It’s the natural way to have a carbon carried hydrogen economy.

When considering the array of biomatter to choose from and the optimal biomatter to be grown in each environment the importance of the GLBRC is more apparent.  Its reasonable to expect that there will come a wide array of processes with a long list of genetic sequenced organism in the coming years.

The GLBRC work gets the door open to much quicker organism development.  The science doesn’t seem real newsworthy, but is fundamentally very important work.


3 Comments so far

  1. Jacquline Youell on May 22, 2011 9:00 AM

    Thanks for posting. Good to see that not everyone is using RSS feeds to build their blogs 😉

  2. Dave Bertagna on September 18, 2011 7:19 PM

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  3. Adrian Falvo on October 4, 2011 6:57 PM

    Thanks for posting. Good to see that not everyone is using RSS feeds to build their blogs 😉

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