February 19, 2016

Biofuel tech straight from the farm

Harvested from the poop of goats, horses and sheep, anaerobic gut fungi
pictured here help herbivores digest stubborn plant material. A team of researchers
report in the journal Science that these fungi could potentially lead to cheaper
biofuel and bio-based products.
Image courtesy of University of California, of Santa Barbara

(February 19, 2016)  Nature's figured it out already, how to best break down food into fuel. Now scientists have caught up, showing that fungi found in the guts of goats, horses and sheep could help fill up your gas tank too.

The researchers report in the journal Science on Feb. 18 that these anaerobic gut fungi perform as well as the best fungi engineered by industry in their ability to convert plant material into sugars that are easily transformed into fuel and other products.

"Nature has engineered these fungi to have what seems to be the world's largest repertoire of enzymes that break down biomass," said Michelle O'Malley, lead author and professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

These enzymes — tools made of protein — work together to break down stubborn plant material. The researchers found that the fungi adapt their enzymes to wood, grass, agricultural waste, or whatever scientists feed it. The findings suggest that industry could modify the gut fungi so that they produce improved enzymes that will outperform the best available ones, potentially leading to cheaper biofuels and bio-based products.

To make the finding, O'Malley drew upon two U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facilities: the Environmental Molecular Science Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the DOE Joint Genome Institute. O'Malley's study is the first to result from a partnership between the two facilities called Facilities Integrating Collaborations for User Science or FICUS. The partnership allows scientists around the world to draw on capabilities at both Office of Science user facilities to get a more complete understanding of fundamental scientific questions. O'Malley's team also included scientists from PNNL, DOE JGI, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and Harper Adams University.

"By tapping the RNA sequencing and protein characterization capabilities at the respective facilities, we have advanced biofuel research in ways not otherwise possible," said Susannah Tringe, DOE JGI deputy for User Programs. "This collaborative program was established to encourage and enable researchers to more easily integrate the expertise and capabilities of multiple user facilities into their research. FICUS offers a one-stop shopping approach for access to technology infrastructure that is rapidly becoming a model for collaboration."

The latest omics technologies and transcontinental teams aside, these finding would not be possible without the most humble of substances.