In Search of Heat-Tolerant Bio-Tools
Research into biofuels continues to yield surprising and encouraging results. For instance, as a part of joint research by the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Maryland School of Medicine, scientists have discovered a hot springs microbe that can consume - and even prefers - cellulose near the boiling point.
The two schools are conducting joint research to analyze microbes found in hot springs and other extreme natural environments around the United States to find enzymes that can be used in extreme industrial processes, including the production of biofuels from hard-to-digest plant fibers.
“Our hope is that this example, and examples from other organisms found in extreme environments - such as high temperature, highly alkaline or acidic, or high salt environments - can provide cellulases that will show improved function under conditions typically found in industrial applications,” said Douglas S. Clark, a UC Berkeley professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, while announcing the findings. Clark is co-authoring a paper with coworkers and colleagues on that will appear in Nature Communications, an online publication.
Called a hot springs microbe because it was discovered in a geothermal pool in Nevada, the “hyperthermophilic” microbe is reportedly the most heat-tolerant enzyme found in any cellulose-digesting microbe to date, including bacteria. According to the researcher “bioprospectors,” the microbe’s key enzyme - the cellulose-digesting enzyme called cellulase - is most active at 228°F (109°C). Ironically, Clark notes that the newly found cellulase may actually work at too high a temperature for some industrial processes.
Looking to nature for enzymes that amplify our understanding of processes and improve efficiency is not new. For instance, the researchers note that the enzyme used in the chain reaction to amplify DNA originally came from a thermophilic organism found in a geyser in Yellowstone National Park. Thus far, however, those found are not optimized for the conditions found in industrial processing, say the researchers.
The hot springs microbes and others like it yet to be found could point the way to more efficient industrial processes. It will be exciting to follow this research.
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