Published on February 21st, 2012 | by Tina Casey1
“Hot Pot” Bacteria Could Make One-Pot Biofuel
The search for a cheap, simple one-pot process for making biofuel is taking researchers to some mighty strange places. In the latest development, scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory have been scouring the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park on the lookout for bacteria that could help break down biomass for biofuel naturally, and now they think they have found their man – er, make that microorganism.
Some like it hot
The researchers settled on a bacterium called Caldicellulosiruptor obsidiansis, which thrives in scalding temperatures and is capable of breaking down leaves and sticks. The trick is to find out exactly how the bug digests that stuff while people like us can’t even get a toothpick down, and it appears that C. obsidiansis gets a bit of a turn-on from switchgrass
According to Morgan McCorkle of ORNL, switchgrass stimulates the microbe to “express an expanded set of proteins that deal specifically with the hemicellulose content of the plant,” hemicellulose being part of what makes tough cell walls in woody biomass so tough to break down.
One more step to low cost biofuel
Now that key proteins and enzymes have been identified, the next step is to integrate these findings with other disciplines. McCorkle cites genomics, transcriptomics and metabolomics as other key elements that will enable researchers to develop an integrated model of how organisms function within a biofuel processing system, rather than picking proteins in isolation.
One biofuel to rule them all…
…or not. As the ORNL research demonstrates, replacing petroleum with low cost biofuel has given rise to a torrent of new research that could have impacts far beyond energy production, while providing many different new methods of generating liquid fuel other than simply pumping it up out of the ground. The search for new biofuel bacteria is just part of it. Other areas that could lead to low cost biomass include prepping the biomass (for example the biofuel “coffee roaster” dreamed up by the University of Leeds), finding a way to grow oil-rich algae while conserving energy and water, or simply combining commercially available biomass pellets with a few new high tech twists.
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