In a recent study funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, scientists discovered a bacterial enzyme that helps to break down lignin, which is a natural component in the woody parts of plants. This enzyme is vital to plant growth and makes them sturdy and straight, but lignin could offer a lot more to mankind and a sustainable life style with its promise of aiding fast growing plants to become a source of bio fuels.
Published in the June 14th issue of the American Chemical Society journal, Biochemistry, the study explains that it has been difficult thus far to extract enough sugar from rapidly growing woody plants for them to be economically feasible as bio fuels. With the help of the enzyme, however, the process is much quicker and more efficient, as the lignin would allow more fuel to be produced from the same amount of plant mass.
The wave of a sustainable future, via the lignin, may well include fast-growing woody plants and the inedible by-products of crops. Researchers were able to isolate and identify the gene responsible for breaking down the lignin in soil as a bacterium called Rhodococcus jostii.
In the past, scientists have found these enzymes in fungi, but this is the first time they have been identified in bacteria, which represents a major breakthrough. Now its molecular structure can be modified to produce large amounts of the needed enzyme. The future may even hold the production of these enzymes on an industrial scale.
Scientists from Canada at the University of British Columbia are collaborating to help unravel the mystery of the enzyme’s structure.
Biofuels may soon be as common as petrol is today, promising a cleaner, healthier and safer tomorrow.