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Bacterial aid for biofuels

Soil-dwelling bacteria harbor an enzyme that can break down a notoriously tough plant polymer, possibly providing a source of large-scale production for the biofuels industry.

Cristina Luiggi

CIAT INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR TROPICAL AGRICULTURE/ FLICKR

Researchers last week discovered an enzyme in the soil-dwelling bacterium Rhodococcus jostii RHA1 that can break down lignin, the structural polymer found in plant cell walls and wood. Lignin is one of the most abundant organic polymers on Earth, but it has represented a major hurdle for the biofuel industry because it is hard to degrade—leaving the energy-rich sugars in woody plants and inedible crop parts inaccessible for the production of biofuels such as ethanol. Although lignin-degrading enzymes have been identified previously in fungi, their discovery in bacteria could for the first time lead to their production at an industrial scale and help "unlock currently unattainable sources of biofuels," said lead researcher Timothy Bugg in a press release. The research is published in today's issue of Biochemistry.

 

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