Caldicellulosiruptor obsidiansis, a bacterium that can normally be found in Yellowstone’s hot springs has opened new horizons for scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) who were studying how to produce ethanol from switchgrass in a more viable manner, without relying on plant material-breaking enzymes.
A comparative analysis of proteins found in Caldicellulosiruptor obsidiansis grown on four different carbon sources revealed that the bacteria particularly liked switchgrass, because it began producing an expanded set of proteins which deal with the hemicellulose content of the plant.
“This progression helps us look at how proteins change given different carbon substrates,” said Richard Giannone, one of the study’s coauthors. “One of the goals is to identify new proteins that we haven’t seen before. If an unknown protein doesn’t show up on the simple sugars or cellulose, but it shows up on the switchgrass, then we can say something about that gene or protein—that it responds to something the switchgrass is providing.”
“You want to throw plant material into a pot with the microorganism and allow it to degrade the material and produce ethanol at the same time,” he said.
Next, the scientists will study the bacterium and will hopefully reverse-engineer the process by which it produces ethanol. However, much more research has to be done before applying the conclusions in practical ethanol-producing applications.