A team of researchers from the Universities of Warwick and British Columbia have discovered an enzyme in a soil-living bacterium called Rhodococcus jostii which can break down lignin, a component of the woody parts of plants. Their aim is to develop methods to process biomass that doesn’t compete with food crops and that also offer cheap biofuels.
The enzymes had been discovered before in fungi, but now it’s the first time that they are being identified in bacteria, whose genome has already been thoroughly investigated. This would allow researchers to modify the bacteria to produce large amounts of the enzyme and break down lignin on an industrial scale.
Professor Timothy Bugg, from the University of Warwick, who led the team, said “For biofuels to be a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels we need to extract the maximum possible energy available from plants. By raising the exciting possibility of being able to produce lignin-degrading enzymes from bacteria on an industrial scale this research could help unlock currently unattainable sources of biofuels.
“By making woody plants and the inedible by-products of crops economically viable the eventual hope is to be able to produce biofuels that don’t compete with food production.”
The researchers’ next challenge is to find the enzyme in extremophile bacteria which live near volcanic vents, at high temperature. If they’ll succeed, then the enzymes from these bacteria would be evolved enough to work at high temperatures and would be fit for industrial processes.
Their work has been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)-led Integrated Biorefining Research and Technology (IBTI) Club.