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article imageGarbage bacteria improves biofuel development

By Tim Sandle     Dec 3, 2012 in Science
The research into biofuels has been limited due to the bacteria normally used only being able to convert part of the cell wall of plant material. An improvement might be in reach due to a bacterium found in the garbage.
Considerable research and development, not to mention finance, is being put into the development of biofuels. The alcohol based fuels, made from organic matter (mainly plant material) represent the most likely future energy strategy to counteract the decline of fossil fuels.
The development of biofuels has so far been relatively inefficient. This is because the bacteria normally used to convert parts of the cell wall of plants into fuel are only able to metabolize a small part of the cellulosic plant material. What most bacteria typically do is convert the glucose contained within the plant wall into ethanol.
However, the plant cell wall also contains an abundance of a substance called hemicellulose. So far, bacteria have not been able to metabolize this substance despite scientists’ attempts at trying to genetically engineer bacteria to do so.
Now a solution has arisen from an unlikely source: the trash can, according to a research brief. A scientist called Rod Mackie, out jogging one day. He saw that the ground near a factory was literally bubbling with microbial activity. Investigating further he found an interesting new microbe in the garbage dump of a canning plant.
The microbe was called Caldanaerobius polysaccharolyticus. On investigation, the bacterium was found to have several interesting enzymes. Importantly, the bacterium contains all of the proteins and enzymes needed to break down xylan, which is the most common hemicellulose. This means that, potentially, far more can be extracted from plant material during the production of biofuels.
The solution is being developed by scientists based at the University of Illinois. The research has been published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
More about Biofuel, Garbage, Bacteria, Ethanol, Plants
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