While trying to understand how microbes break down hemicellulose into simple sugars in the cows’ rumen, researchers from the University of Illinois have discovered how to improve the biofuel production. They make use of the rumen bacterium as a model, as “it’s one of the most efficient machines to deconstruct plant matter,” said Isaac Cann, associate professor in the U of I Department of Animal Sciences and member of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI).
The bacterium is called Prevotella bryantii and the scientists used DNA sequencing and transcriptomics to determine all of its enzymes that play a role in the hemicellulose deconstruction into simple sugars. Currently, the biofuel industry is struggling to find out how to transform feedstocks into sugars and then into biodiesel or ethanol. Only simple sugars can be fermented for the moment with the currently known technologies and transformed into ethanol or butanol.
“If you don’t completely understand what is happening, you can’t improve it,” Cann said. “The U of I’s strong history in anaerobic microbiology and genomics, and the EBI’s substantial funding enabled us to achieve this milestone. To my knowledge, this was the first time that anyone has systematically demonstrated the deconstruction of the plant cell wall hemicellulose.”
Thus the understanding of a simple microbe could boost the development of the biofuel technology and could unleash new clean sources of energy. As Cann added: “This is ground-breaking research. “The implications are very broad, yet it all started with a simple rumen microbe. It’s amazing how we can draw inferences to human health and nutrition, biofuel production and animal nutrition because of our new understanding of how a microbe works.”