An enzyme to ease biofuel production

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Posted on August 16, 2013
New possibilities for efficient biofuel production

New possibilities for efficient biofuel production
This image shows part of a cross section of the Arabidopsis stem where lignin is visualized as a red color by Mäule staining. Lignin is only present in the cell walls of specific cell types (fibre and vessel cells). Credit: Lisa Sundin

Limited availability of fossil fuels stimulates the search for different energy resources. The use of biofuels is one of the alternatives. Sugars derived from the grain of agricultural crops can be used to produce biofuel but these crops occupy fertile soils needed for food and feed production. Fast growing plants such as poplar, eucalyptus, or various grass residues such as corn stover and sugarcane bagasse do not compete and can be a sustainable source for biofuel.

An international collaboration of plant scientists from VIB and Ghent University (Belgium), the University of Dundee (UK), The James Hutton Institute (UK) and the University of Wisconsin (USA) identified a new gene in the biosynthetic pathway of lignin, a major component of plant secondary cell walls that limits the conversion of biomass to energy. These findings published online in this week’s issue of Science Express pave the way for new initiatives supporting a bio-based economy.

“This exciting, fundamental discovery provides an alternative pathway for altering lignin in plants and has the potential to greatly increase the efficiency of energy crop conversion for biofuels,” said Sally M. Benson, director of Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project. “We have been so pleased to support this team of world leaders in lignin research and to see the highly successful outcome of these projects.”

Lignin as a barrier

To understand how plant cells can deliver fuel or plastics, a basic knowledge of a plant’s cell wall is needed. A plant cell wall mainly consists of lignin and sugar molecules such as cellulose. Cellulose can be converted to glucose which can then be used in a classical fermentation process to produce alcohol, similar to beer or wine making. Lignin is a kind of cement that embeds the sugar molecules and thereby gives firmness to plants. Thanks to lignin, even very tall plants can maintain their upright stature. Unfortunately, lignin severely reduces the accessibility of sugar molecules for biofuel production. The lignin cement has to be removed via an energy-consuming and environmentally unfriendly process. Plants with a lower amount of lignin or with lignin that is easier to break down can be a real benefit for biofuel and bioplastics production. The same holds true for the paper industry that uses the cellulose fibres to produce paper.

Read more at: Phys.org