University of Florida researchers have identified two new enzymes found in termite saliva that could lower the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol.
Cellulosic ethanol is a fuel produced from the inedible portions of plants, material often discarded as trash. The process often involves genetically engineered microbes such as bacteria or fungi to break down sugars found in the cell walls of the plants.
Before the microbes can do their work, however, they must first get past lignin, the compound largely responsible for making wood “woody” instead of soft.
During ethanol production, lignin molecules are clumped around the sugar molecules, forming a barrier the microbes often can’t penetrate.
So, the material must first be exposed to heat and steam or caustic acids and bases to break that barrier down. These extra steps make the process much more expensive and often generate hazardous waste.
As they report in a paper published online in the journal Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, researchers at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have determined that enzymes found in termite salivary tissues may be able to accomplish the same task, and at room temperature.
“Once we figure out the best way to integrate this sort of enzyme into the process, it could drop the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol significantly,” said UF entomologist Mike Scharf, who led the research, a collaboration between UF/IFAS and the biotechnology company Chesapeake-PERL Inc. of Savage, Md.
The work was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research Inc.
Source : University of Florida News