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How to improve the manufacturing of biofuels? Fungi have the answer

Every so often scientists look for inspiration in nature. Usually it is for some structures or substances that can be used in medicine. Now scientists from the University of York are drawing inspiration from how fungi are capable of breaking down one of the main components of wood. This could lead to easier industrial conversion of wood biomass into biofuel.

Fungi have impressive abilities to break down wood. Image credit: Katja Schulz via Wikimedia(CC BY 2.0)

Biofuel is something we need for the future, but the enzyme found in fungi that helps it break down wood would be helpful in manufacturing other chemicals as well. Current methods of converting wood into biofuel are expensive and energy-consuming. While wood is promising source of fuel, it has to be as eco-friendly as possible for it to be viable. It is a good alternative to oil and coal, but wood is difficult to break down in our biorefineries. However, fungi have been doing this for literally thousands of years – they consume wood and release nutrients back into the soil.

Back in 2010 scientists have made a surprising discovery – enzymes that help fungi breaking down the wood in nature contain copper. Scientists think that this enzyme is what allows fungi to break down the complicated molecular structure of wood. Now scientists wanted to see what other enzymes are within this group. The research revealed that enzymes, called lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases, break down carbohydrate molecules, known as xylans, commonly found in wood biomass. Xylans are particularly resilient to degradation. Professor Paul Walton, co-author of the paper, said: “These enzymes may underpin the development of improved enzyme cocktails for biorefinery applications using wood – unlocking its conversion into a wide-range of valuable commodities in a sustainable way”.

Scientists managed to isolate the enzymes from fungi that are the most important agents in breaking down wood. This allows them to understand how biomass is broken down naturally in nature. Introducing these enzymes into industry could help reducing cost and environmental impact of biorefineries. Essentially, this could make biofuel more eco-friendly, which would pave the way to a more sustainable future.

Biofuel is the future, but we have to find ways to improve its manufacturing. While current methods certainly work, they are not the best due to high energy consumption and cost. Hopefully, fungi have the answer on how to improve biofuel manufacturing.

 

Source: University of York

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