Tiny Gribble’s Enzymes A Boon For Biofuels

by | Jun 13, 2013

GribbleA marine wood borer’s ability to use its own enzymes to break down biomass could be a boon for biofuel research, by helping to convert the biomass into ethanol, according to a paper published by researchers from the US and UK in the National Academy of Sciences.

The Limnoria quadripunctata, commonly known as the gribble, produces a novel cellulose degrading enzyme that allows the tiny creature to bore through wood fairly quickly, without using symbiotic microbes,. It is responsible for a lot of the natural and man-made marine timber damage throughout the world.

Researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the University of Kentucky and the Universitites of Portsmouth and York in the UK are hoping to turn the gribble’s special talent into a source of novel enzymes for the biofuels industry.

The gribbles produce several enzymes that are similar to those typically harvested from fungi in the biosphere for industrially deconstructing the cellulose in biomass. The gribble enzymes have the potential to tolerate salts much better, probably because they evolved in a marine environment, the researchers say.

This potential could enable the gribble enzymes to be more efficient in a high-solids, industrial environment, breaking biomass down more effectively into sugars, which can then be converted into ethanol or a hydrocarbon fuel to replace gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.

The biofuels industry needs tough, efficient enzymes that are tolerant of industrial processes and the gribble’s structure could be a model for scientists to develop more robust  industrial enzymes, says NREL senior scientist Gregg Beckham, one of the co-authors. NREL ran computer simulations and aided in the structural and biochemical analysis of the enzyme.

Converting waste and biomass to energy in an efficient manner is the focus of a contest in the UK. The Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) has chosen three companies to compete in designing the most commercially viable, energy-from-waste gasification plant possible. The aim of the $4.2 million project, commissioned and funded by the ETI, is to demonstrate how such a plant could create energy from waste at efficiencies higher than previously produced in the industry at this scale.

Image credit: Dr Simon Cragg and Graham Malyon, Institute of Marine Sciences, School of Biological Sciences, University of Portsmouth, UK.

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