Salt-loving microbe provides new enzymes for the production of next-gen biofuels

Jun 30, 2011
As a test of a bioenergy-related application of DNA sequencing and enzyme discovery, US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute researchers led by the DOE JGI Director Eddy Rubin, and colleagues from the Joint BioEnergy Institute at DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory employed a cellulose-degrading enzyme from a salt-tolerant microbe that was isolated from the Great Salt Lake. Credit: David Gilbert, DOE JGI

In order to realize the full potential of advanced biofuels that are derived from non-food sources of lignocellulosic biomass—e.g., agricultural, forestry, and municipal waste, and crops such as poplar, switchgrass and miscanthus—new technologies that can efficiently and cost-effectively break down this biomass into simple sugars are required. Existing biomass pretreatment technologies are typically derived from the pulp and paper industry and rely on dilute acids and bases to break down the biomass. The treated biomass product is then exposed to biological catalysts, or enzymes, to liberate the sugars.

A new class of solvents, referred to as ionic liquids, have been reported to be much more efficient in treating the and enhancing the yield of sugars liberated from it. While ionic liquids are useful for breaking down biomass, they can also hinder the ability of the cellulases (usually derived from fungi) used to produce sugars after pretreatment. Ionic liquids are a liquid form of salt that will inactivate enzymes by interfering with the folding of polypeptides—the building-blocks of proteins. To help identify new enzymes that are tolerant of ionic liquids, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Joint Genome Institute (JGI) and the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) at DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are turning to those found in the complete genome sequences of halophilic (salt-tolerant) organisms.

As a test of this bioenergy-related application of DNA sequencing and enzyme discovery, researchers led by the Director of the DOE JGI, Eddy Rubin, and the Vice-President of the JBEI Deconstruction Division, Blake Simmons, employed a cellulose-degrading enzyme from a salt-tolerant microbe that was isolated from the Great Salt Lake. The microbe in question, Halorhabdus utahensis, is from the branch of the tree of life known as Archaea; H. utahensis was isolated from the natural environment at the Great Salt Lake and sequenced at the DOE JGI as part of the Genomic Encyclopedia of Bacteria and Archaea (GEBA) project.

"This is one of the only reports of salt-tolerant cellulases, and the only one that represents a true 'genome-to-function' relevant to ionic liquids from a halophilic environment," said Simmons of the study published June 30, 2011 in Green Chemistry. "This strategy enhances the possibility of identifying true obligatory halophilic enzymes." Such salt-tolerant enzymes, particularly cellulases, offer significant advantages for industrial utility over conventional enzymes.

In collaboration with Jerry Eichler from Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel they cloned and expressed a gene from H. utahensis in another haloarchaeal microbe, and were able to identify a salt-dependent that can tolerate high temperatures and is resistant to . "This project has established a very important link between genomic science and the realization of enzymes that can handle very demanding chemical environments, such as those present in a biorefinery," said Simmons.

The group plans to expand this research to develop a full complement of enzymes that is tailored for the ionic liquid process technology with the goal of demonstrating a complete biomass-to-sugar process, one they hope can enable the commercial viability of advanced biofuels.

Explore further: Pterostilbene, a molecule similar to resveratrol, as a potential treatment for obesity

Related Stories

Super-fermenting fungus genome sequenced

Mar 05, 2007

On the road to making biofuels more economically competitive with fossil fuels, there are significant potholes to negotiate. For cellulosic ethanol production, one major detour has being addressed with the characterization ...

Breaking biomass better

Jul 12, 2010

One of the challenges in making cellulosic biofuels commercially viable is to cost-effectively deconstruct plant material to liberate fermentable energy-rich sugars. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is ...

Ionic Liquid's Makeup Measurably Non-Uniform at the Nanoscale

Nov 10, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers at Texas Tech University, Queen's University in Belfast, Ireland, the University of Rome and the National Research Council in Italy recently made a discovery about the non-uniform chemical compositions ...

Data Effort Improves Flow Toward 'Greener' Chemistry

Apr 21, 2005

Jeopardy answer: Death Valley and "ionic liquids." Correct question: Where does a little bit of water make a whole lot of difference? Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) rep ...

Scientists develope new agents to battle MRSA

Mar 25, 2009

Experts from Queen's University Belfast have developed new agents to fight MRSA and other hospital-acquired infections that are resistant to antibiotics. The fluids are a class of ionic liquids that not only kill colonies ...

Recommended for you

Why plants don't get sunburn

Oct 29, 2014

Plants rely on sunlight to make their food, but they also need protection from its harmful rays, just like humans do. Recently, scientists discovered a group of molecules in plants that shields them from ...

Viral switches share a shape

Oct 27, 2014

A hinge in the RNA genome of the virus that causes hepatitis C works like a switch that can be flipped to prevent it from replicating in infected cells. Scientists have discovered that this shape is shared by several other ...

'Sticky' ends start synthetic collagen growth

Oct 27, 2014

Rice University researchers have delivered a scientific one-two punch with a pair of papers that detail how synthetic collagen fibers self-assemble via their sticky ends.

Cell membranes self-assemble

Oct 27, 2014

A self-driven reaction can assemble phospholipid membranes like those that enclose cells, a team of chemists at the University of California, San Diego, reports in Angewandte Chemie.

Emergent behavior lets bubbles 'sense' environment

Oct 27, 2014

Tiny, soapy bubbles can reorganize their membranes to let material flow in and out in response to the surrounding environment, according to new work carried out in an international collaboration by biomedical ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.