New research finds that some day your gas tanks could be filled up by horses, sheep and goat’s guts. Researchers looked at how the anaerobic gut fungi, as compared to engineered fungi, were able to convert plant material into sugars that could be converted into advanced biofuels and other biobased materials.
Fungi found in the guts of goats, horses and sheep help them digest stubborn plant material. A team of researchers report in the journal Science that these fungi could potentially lead to cheaper biofuel and bio-based products. Professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara Michelle O’Malley, was the lead author of the paper. She explained, “Nature has engineered these fungi to have what seems to be the world’s largest repertoire of enzymes that break down biomass.”
These enzymes — tools made of protein — work together to break down stubborn plant material. The researchers found that the fungi adapt their enzymes to wood, grass, agricultural waste, or whatever they were fed. The findings suggest that gut fungi could be modified so the produce better enzymes that will outperform even the best ones on the market today. With a more effective way to break down biomass, it should led to the development of less expensive biofuels and bioproducts.
O’Malley and her colleagues knew the fungi’s hyphae excrete proteins, or enzymes, break down plant material. The researchers understood that like tools in a toolbox, the more diverse the enzymes, the better the fungi can take apart plants and turn them into food. So the goal was to help develop this fungi toolbox for the bioindustry to use to better break down biomass.
“Despite their fascinating biology, anaerobic gut fungi can be difficult to isolate and study,” said Scott Baker, EMSL’s science theme lead for Biosystem Dynamics and Design, one of the agencies that collaboratively participated in the research. “By utilizing the cutting-edge scientific capabilities at EMSL and JGI, O’Malley showed how the huge catalog of anaerobic gut fungi enzymes could advance biofuel production.”