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Scientists follow the trail of gut fungi in search for sustainable fuels

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June 12, 2017 Share This!

  • An artist's rendering depicts a chain of repeating green glucose molecules in cellulose being broken down by a fungus. Various enzymes, shown as gemlike elements, work together in assembly-line fashion to break down the cellulose.
    Credit: Scott Condon/UCSB

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RICHLAND, Wash. — Scientists are taking their cues from fungi in the digestive tracts of cows, goats and sheep in the search for new ways to create sustainable fuels and medicines.

It turns out that fungal enzymes in herbivores play well together, teaming up to form cellulosomes — large protein structures made up of several enzymes. While each enzyme specializes in a certain kind of reaction, a cellulosome brings several of the tools together in one structure adept at transforming lignocellulose — the primary building block of plant cell walls — into sugars. It's like the fungal version of an all-purpose jackknife, with all the tools handy for a variety of tasks. Creating the sugars is a key step toward faster, cheaper creation of biofuels from biomass like corn stalks and switchgrass.

The work, published in Nature Microbiology, was led by Michelle O'Malley of the University of California at Santa Barbara. To do the work, she drew on the resources of two Department of Energy Office of Science user facilities, the Joint Genome Institute and EMSL, Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, through the FICUS program.

Among the authors at EMSL and DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory were Heather Brewer, Samuel Purvine, Aaron Wright and Scott Baker. More information is available via reports from UCSB, JGI and EMSL.

Tags: Energy, Fundamental Science, EMSL, Biomass, Biofuel, Microbiology

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