Researchers from the Department of Energy (DOE) have for the first time identified an enzyme that is capable of significantly raising the amount of the sugar galactan that is present in the cell walls of plants. Galactan is a type of galactose, which is a 6-carbon sugar that is easily fermentable into ethanol by utilizing yeast. It has long been a substance of great interest to researchers trying to create advanced biofuels from “cellulosic biomass.”
In contrast to ethanol, new and “advanced” biofuels created from the sugars found in the cell walls of plants could be directly substituted in place of currently used fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuels. They can take the place of these fuels “on a gallon-for-gallon basis,” and wouldn’t require any modifications to be made to the engines and infrastructures that are currently in use.
The quality that makes them truly promising as a supplement to renewable energies, though, is their potential to be carbon neutral, potentially being burned without contributing any new carbon to the atmosphere.
The primary challenge to the creation of these fuels has been finding a way “to maximize the amount of plant cell wall sugars that can be fermented into fuels,” Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) researchers note. The new research does a lot to address this.
“We have confirmed the identity of the GT92 enzyme as the first enzyme shown to increase the biosynthesis of galactan,” says Henrik Scheller, vice president for JBEI’s Feedstocks Division and director of its Cell Wall Biosynthesis group. “This identification of the first β-1,4-galactan synthase provides an important new tool for the engineering of advanced bioenergy fuel crops.”
While I’m not a proponent of biofuel use on a large-scale, carbon-neutral forms could very useful as a small-scale supplement to renewable energy such as solar and wind power.
The new research was just described in a paper published in the journal Plant Cell.
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