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Less is more: Novel cellulose structure requires fewer enzymes to process biomass to fuel

Posted on June 21, 2013
An enzyme (shown in blue) pulls out individual cellulose chains (pink) from the pretreated nanofiber surface (green) and then breaks them apart into simple sugars. Credit: Shishir Chundawat, Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

An enzyme (shown in blue) pulls out individual cellulose chains (pink) from the pretreated nanofiber surface (green) and then breaks them apart into simple sugars. Credit: Shishir Chundawat, Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

Improved methods for breaking down cellulose nanofibers are central to cost-effective biofuel production and the subject of new research from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC). Scientists are investigating the unique properties of crystalline cellulose nanofibers to develop novel chemical pretreatments and designer enzymes for biofuel production from cellulosic—or non-food—plant derived biomass.

“Cellulose is laid out in plant cell walls as crystalline nanofibers, like steel reinforcements embedded in concrete columns,” says GLBRC’s Shishir Chundawat. “The key to cheaper biofuel production is to unravel these tightly packed nanofibers more efficiently into soluble sugars using fewer enzymes.”

An article published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests—counter-intuitively—that increased binding of enzymes to cellulose polymers doesn’t always lead to faster breakdown into simple sugars. In fact, Chundawat’s research team found that using novel biomass pretreatments to convert cellulose to a unique crystalline structure called cellulose III reduced native enzyme binding while increasing sugar yields by as much as five times.

“The ability of this unconventional pretreatment strategy, currently under development at GLBRC, to selectively alter the cellulose crystal structure may lead to an order of magnitude reduction in enzyme usage. This will be critical for cost-effective cellulosic biofuel production,” says Bruce Dale of Michigan State University, who leads GLBRC’s biomass deconstruction research area.

Read more at: Phys.org

   
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