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Firebrats could hold the key to a more efficient way of breaking down cellulose for biofuels

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Posted February 22, 2018

A lot of current scientific advancements have been made by scientists looking into nature. Now scientists at the University of York analysed digestive system of an ancient group of insects and found that their ability to digest cellulose could be used in several industrial applications. Researchers made the discovery when they noticed that firebrats thrive on crystalline cellulose.

Firebrats are extremely old and rather primitive isects that are capable of digesting cellulose very effectively. Image credit: Syrio via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 4.0)

Cellulose, of course, is natural fibre, making up the structure of straw, paper, cardboard and other natural materials. Cellulose is basically what allows plants to stay upright, because it gives rigidity and strength to walls of plant cells. Firebrats are extremely primitive, originating 420 million years ago, but their digestive system is quite impressive. These insects have no trouble digesting cellulose – they do that very effectively. Scientists were not particularly interested in them before, but now they are thinking that this characteristic could be employed in various industries, including biofuels.

Scientists analysed the guts of the firebrats and found a group of uncharacterised proteins, making up a big part of their carbohydrate digestive enzymes. Dr Federico Sabbadin, one of the authors of the paper, said: “On further inspection, these proteins proved to be a new class of enzyme, called lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases (LPMOs), which attack crystalline polysaccharides. Our study revealed that these enzymes are used by firebrats to greatly increase the rate of cellulose digestion”. LPMOs have been known to science already, but they were only found in fungi, bacteria and viruses. This new analysis shows that LPMOs can be widespread among invertebrates as well. But what implications will these findings have?

Interestingly, one would be pest control. Scientists found that these ancestral genes are essential for metamorphosis of the insects. Changing them should be lethal so it could be a potential way of pest control. However, a more important application would be production of biofuels – these enzymes could be used to break down cellulose in straw and wood, making biofuel production cheaper and more environmentally friendly. These enzymes in the industry could be used to break down cellulose into fermentable sugars, which are needed for biofuel production.

Biofuel is the future, but we need to make sure that the production of biofuels is also as eco-friendly as possible. It seems like looking into nature for inspiration could be the best bet.

 

Source: University of York

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