– January 24, 2017, Phys.org
To make biofuels, tiny microbes can be used to break down plant cells. As part of that digestive process, specialized enzymes break down cellulose—a major molecule that makes plant cell walls rigid. Scientists showed that an enzyme, from the bacterial glycoside hydrolase family 12, plays an unexpectedly important role in breaking down a hard-to-degrade crystalline form of cellulose. Surprisingly, the enzyme breaks apart the cellulose via a random mechanism unlike other hydrolases.
Breaking down cellulose is a major challenge in developing more efficient strategies for converting plant biomass to fuels and chemicals. The discovery of a specialized enzyme that is highly effective at breaking down rigid plant cell wall components could be harnessed to solve this challenge.
– June 28, 2016, Phys.org
Lignin is a natural component of plant cell walls, the scaffolding that surrounds each cell and plays a pivotal role in plants’ ability to grow against gravity and reach heights ranging from stubbly grasses to the sky-scraping splendor of redwoods. But lignin is a problem for scientists interested in converting plant biomass to biofuels and other sustainable bio-based products. Lignin makes it hard to break down the plant matter so its carbon-rich building blocks can be converted into forms suitable for generating energy or running automobiles.
A simple solution might be to engineer plants with less lignin. But previous attempts to do this have often resulted in weaker plants and stunted growth-essentially putting the brakes on biomass production.
– by Cristina Maza, March 11, 2016, Christian Science Monitor
Photo: Jim Young/ Reuters
Across the country, researchers are looking into whether genetically modified crops can transform plants into low carbon fuels.
Biofuels are often considered a replacement for the fossil fuels used to power vehicles and aircrafts. Companies around the world, from airlines to oil refiners, mix plant-based fuels with gasoline and jet fuel to lower the levels of carbon emissions.
But major questions remain about whether biofuels are environmentally friendly. Experts point out that cultivating biofuels can lead to soil erosion or deforestation, and many of the crops used to make fuel require substantial amounts of land, water, and energy. What’s more, biofuel production is expensive, making it difficult for consumers to use higher volumes of biofuel than traditional fossil fuels.
Now, researchers across the US are pouring resources into discovering whether it’s possible to produce sustainable biofuel through selective plant breeding and genetic modification. That technique, which has generated controversy in the food industry, is seen as a useful tool in the race for cleaner, better fuels. What’s more, new technologies, such as big data analytics and advanced robotics, are aiding in the quest to discover which plants work best for fuel production.