Norwegian scientists are reporting promising findings in the journal Science this month that they explain a new enzyme that can crack the simple idea but very hard to do breakdown of chitin biomass into the simpler sugars needed for making things like ethanol or methane.

Chitin Molecule Diagram. Click image for the largest view. From Wikipedia. A link is in the text above for the article.

Ethanol and methane are alternative energy fuels that can be produced through the decomposition of carbohydrate-rich biomass of both marine and terrestrial origins. Potential sources include surprisingly shellfish, which are full of the carbohydrate chitin, and common wood and waste wood, since they contain cellulose.  Two things the Norwegians find in abundance.

But coming up with a quick, efficient means of converting biomass that is rich in chitin or cellulose into biofuel, however, has been a difficult worldwide search of considerable investment both in time and capital.  Much of today’s biofuel is derived from food plants such as sugar cane, corn and rapeseed – sugar, oil and starch crops that could be used to feed people and using a significant portion of the handily farmed land mass.

Dr Gustav Vaaje-Kolstad, Researcher at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB), who is one of the seven co-authors of the Science article said, “In theory it’s easy to convert the carbohydrates in cellulose, for instance, to small sugar molecules that nourish microorganisms which in turn produce methane and ethanol. But in practice, it has proven to be quite challenging,” The hard part is that the respective carbohydrate polymers of both chitin and cellulose form extremely dense, resilient bonds. Indeed, the biological function of chitin and cellulose is precisely to make the organism physically hard and durable – slowing the breakdown rate for enzymes whose function is to decompose these kinds of material.

The authors describe in Science how the “new” enzymes (now designated oxidohydrolases) help to biodegrade the seemingly insoluble carbohydrate polymers in cellulose and chitin. Enzyme design is the key to the solution. To do their job, the enzymes must first be designed to attach securely to the crystalline glucose chains they are intended to break down. This allows them to split the sugars repeatedly without falling off.
A sort of ‘hanging in there’ issue that bedevils a lot of ideas on cracking cellulose.

The Norwegian researchers’ findings may well represent the long-awaited breakthrough. The UMB researchers have applied for a patent on their method and are discussing further collaboration with the international enzyme producer Novozymes.

Oxidohydrolases could make it both less costly and easier to produce biofuel while serving to scale back the controversial practice of using edible plants to produce biofuels. Sustainable large-scale biofuel production will require materials that are more readily available – so scientists, politicians and environmentalists have long sought an efficient method for utilizing less-valuable biological resources as the raw materials.

The announcement doesn’t seem on the surface as being of major significance.  Yet the ability to ‘hang in there’ is a major problem for enzyme activity when dealing with such tough stuff like cellulose and chitin. The Norwegian team thinks they have it for chitin and have strong indications that similar enzymes will turn up dealing specifically with cellulose.

The enzyme they are describing is totally new.  This research might be ‘it’.  But we’ve heard that before.  Lets hope this time, where the research went for the really hard to crack chitin that the more abundant cellulose has finally gotten an answer.


8 Comments so far

  1. MattMusson on October 22, 2010 9:44 AM

    In theory there is no difference between theory and practice.

    But, in practice there is!

  2. JPK on October 22, 2010 5:32 PM

    What can be done in cracking chitin before making biofuels is beyond me. needs to look for more (and better) answers before stating that it will come for cellulosic biofuels to be brought to the U.S. and international markets.

    There is no turning back in finding the right answers. Is it understandable to find out how such an experiment would work? You should see what it is suuposed to do, – and I can’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

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