It works by sniffing out naturally occurring bacterial networks that are genetically wired to break down wood polymer (see also Biosensing).
"Nature has already invented microbial processes to degrade lignin-the tough polymer in wood and plant biomass that currently stymies industrial bio-refining," says UBC microbiologist
Developed by Hallam and his team, the biosensor screens DNA from environmental samples to isolate the lignin-busting genetic machinery encoded in the samples' resident microbes.
"We've found that bacteria harness adaptive genetic circuits to break down lignin and that these circuits can be mobilized in nature via horizontal gene transfer," says Hallam. "Our biosensor and screening enables us to uncover this genetic network, and then further optimize it in the laboratory."
The improved understanding of adaptive, eco-engineered lignin transformation could also lead to more tunable industrial processes.
"We need to remain sensitive to the complexity of natural processes that act on lignin, but this project has unearthed some basic organizing principles that will also enable us to exploit microbial processes more quickly for any number of engineering applications," says UBC researcher
The sensor, screening and adaptive genetic circuitry discovered with them have been licensed through the University Industry Liaison Office. A spin-off company, guided by the e@UBC program, is looking into ways to increase the scale of production of this technology.
The findings validating the screening were published in the Proceedings of the
Lignin, a promising and abundant feedstock, comprises up to 40 per cent of plant biomass. However lignin has so far resisted efficient decomposition into fuels, fine chemicals and advanced materials.
Most bio-refining agents are based on enzymes engineered from fungi. In this case, UBC researchers used the innovative screening approach to source and test genetic arrays from bacteria inhabiting coal beds. The biosensor reacts to a set of small molecules that are the residue of lignin's natural degradation process. The researchers surmised that coal - ancient wood and plant biomass deposited before the evolution of fungal lignin degradation pathways - might contain bacterial pathways involved in the transformation process.
"This is a very significant breakthrough that provides important new insights into how nature breaks down lignin," says
Keywords for this news article include: Chemicals, Chemistry, Biosensing, Bioengineering, Bionanotechnology, Nanobiotechnology,
Our reports deliver fact-based news of research and discoveries from around the world. Copyright 2014, NewsRx LLC
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