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UK researchers discover new fungal enzymes that could convert wood to biofuels

EBR Staff Writer Published 20 February 2018

A team of researchers, including scientists from the University of York in the UK has discovered a set of fungal enzymes that has potential to be used to sustainably convert wood biomass into chemical commodities such as biofuels.

The new set of enzymes called lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases (LPMOs) found in fungi have potential to break down one of the main components of wood that could hold be used to make renewable energy,

The LPMOs are capable of breaking down xylans, the carbohydrate molecules which are commonly found in wood biomass and are resistant to degradation, the researchers said.

Traditionally, pre-treatment processes are required to convert wood into fuels and products which are costly and energy consuming.

University of York chemistry department professor Paul Walton said that the researchers made key discovery in 2010 that a group of enzymes found in fungi, contain copper. These enzymes are now being considered as an important component in the decomposition of biomass by biology.

“This research builds on that work by identifying further enzymes from this class which have the ability to break down wood’s challenging molecular structure.

“These enzymes may underpin the development of improved enzyme cocktails for biorefinery applications using wood – unlocking its conversion into a wide-range of valuable commodities in a sustainable way.”

The researchers, in collaboration with French researchers from the Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) Marseille, isolated the enzymes from fungi that are said to play an important role in the terrestrial carbon cycle and dominate wood decomposition in forests.

University of York Chemistry Department professor Gideon Davies said: “The findings advance our knowledge of the way in which woody biomass degrades in nature.

“This discovery unlocks the key scientific challenge of how biorefineries can convert wood into biofuel in an environmental and cost-effective way, bringing us a step closer to a sustainable 21st Century.”

Image: The fungi help in breaking breaking down wood within the carbon cycle. Photo: courtesy of University of York.