Scientists at Novozymes’ laboratories in Davis, California, and Bagsvaerd, Denmark, with as researchers at the University of Copenhagen, the University of Cambridge, and the University of York announced they have identified the molecular mechanism behind an enzyme found in fungi which can degrade the cellulose chains of plant cell walls to release shorter sugars for biofuels.

The discovery is claimed to open the way for the industrial production of fuels and chemicals from plentiful and renewable cellulose in waste plant matter.  With Novazymes involved, that may just be the case.  It would represent a major breakthrough, as cellulose is the world’s most abundant biopolymer.

Global generation of cellulose is equivalent in energy to 670 billion barrels of oil — some 20 times the current annual global oil consumption.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, removes the major constraint on the production of bioethanol from cellulose.   The stability of the enzyme has so far thwarted efforts to make effective use of it for biofuels.

Active Site Structure and EPR spectrum of Enzyme Cu-TaGH61. Click image for more info.

Using the copper-dependent TaGH61 enzyme to overcome the chemical inertness of the material presents a way of initiating effective oxidative degeneration of cellulose.

Professor Gideon Davies, of the University’s Department of Chemistry at the University of York, much of whose work on plant cell-wall degradation is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, said: “Cracking cellulose represents one of the principal industrial and biotechnological challenges of the 21st century. Industrial production of fuels and chemicals from this plentiful and renewable resource holds the potential to displace petroleum-based sources, thus reducing the associated economic and environmental costs of oil and gas production. Events at Fukushima and the continuing instability in major oil producing countries only highlight the need for a balanced energy portfolio.”

Professor Paul Walton also of the University’s Department of Chemistry at the University of York adds, “This discovery opens up a major avenue in the continuing search for environmentally friendly and secure energy. The potential of bioethanol to make a major contribution to sustainable energy really now is a reality.”

From Novazymes Claus Crone Fuglsang, Managing Director at the Novozymes research labs in Davis said, “Scientists have worked to figure out how to break down plant matter for the past 50-60 years. The impressive effect of GH61 was established a few years back and today it is a key feature of our Cellic CTec products.  Fully understanding the mechanism behind GH61 is important in the context of commercial production of biofuel from plant waste and a true scientific paradigm shift. This discovery will continue to drive advances in production of other biobased chemicals and materials in the future.”

From the University of Copenhagen, Leila Lo Leggio, Group Leader of the Biophysical Chemistry Group at the Department of Chemistry said: “As a team of academic scientists, it is particularly rewarding when our basic research in the three-dimensional structure and chemistry of proteins also contributes to possible solutions for one of the major challenges our society is facing.”

University of Cambridge’s Bioenergy Initiative and Director of the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Cell Wall Sugars program Professor Paul Dupree said “Understanding the GH61 enzyme activity is one of the most significant recent advances in the area of biomass deconstruction and release of cell wall sugars.”

With Novazymes involved this research certainly has scale applications.  How far it can go is yet to be determined, the enzyme’s activity can also be upstaged by something better or cheaper from other research paths.  At the root of the hubbub though is the team has a good grasp of what’s going on as the enzyme is at work – a base for improving how the enzyme is used which should bring products and  improvements sooner rather than later.  It’s the opposite of the Edison method – testing until you find a good enough – using a build up from root activity until you build an ultimate process.  The root activity is in hand, which should put a cheer in the owners of Novazymes.

The full study paper pdf file is available for a time at least, so click here.  It’s a rich recommended read with some distinctly professional writing involved making it more understandable than many papers.  The participating scientists and contributor lists are long, the organization involved substantial.  The results are groundbreaking.  This may be a model worth examining for other deep research efforts.

Congratulations are in order and so given.  Good worthwhile work.



3 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on September 1, 2011 7:19 AM


    Since you are involved in agribusiness, maybe you could give us your opinion.

    Would there be any advantage to using this enzyme on feed silage? Would it breakdown cellulose into a more nutritious or more palatable food source for animals? Or, at least do it more quickly?

  2. Al Fin on September 1, 2011 7:56 AM

    Cheap sugars from biomass would change the world in many ways, Matt. The fuels and chemicals industries would profit as would food industrials such as ADM.

    But this is not an enzyme discovery so much as it is finding the key to make better catalysts — both organic and inorganic. Better inorganic nanotech catalysts could function in a wider range of environments than organic enzymes could survive, for higher yields.

    Rational catalytic design combined with advanced nano-engineering and gene-engineering are changing the existing underlying balance of man and nature.

  3. gideon wambugu on January 30, 2012 7:03 AM

    Is the enzyme available in a way it can be used to improve the digestibility of fibrous material like rice straws,maize stovers and wheat straws?

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