A global research team is working together to help develop more efficient production methods for biofuel production. Scientists at the University of York are part of this team looking at how natural occurring enzymes can be used to degrade microbe-resistant biomass. The research is part of ongoing study of a recently discovered family of enzymes produced by fungi and bacteria, which are able to break down tough cellulose-based materials such as plant stems. The hope is that by understanding how the naturally occurring enzymes work, they can then be improved for industrial purposes, principally the production of biofuels from sustainable sources.
Professor Paul Walton and Professor Gideon Davies of the Department of Chemistry at York, two members of the team recently presented the first published molecular structure of one of the key enzymes (lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases or LPMOs) involved in these processes. The paper appeared in Nature Chemical Biology.
The research shows how the ‘active site’ of the enzyme changes when it binds to plant cell wall cellulose, and this knowledge, say the scientists, is important in advancing understanding of the reaction chemistry.
“LPMOs have overturned our thinking about biomass degradation in biology; they are also essential components in the commercial production of bioethanol from cellulosic feedstocks,” said Professor Walton. This new structure will help chemists and biochemists improve the efficiencies of these important enzymes.”
Professor Davies added, “When we can understand structure and chemistry we can improve environmentally-friendly processes for the benefit of all. This work, by a combined European team, gives us unparalleled molecular insight into one of the key reactions catalysed by fungi. It is truly exciting.”
The new research resulted from a European consortium project entitled Critical Enzymes for Sustainable Biofuels from Cellulose (CESBIC) involving York and the Universities of Copenhagen and Cambridge, CNRS Aix-Marseille Université, France, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, and industrial partner Novozymes A/S in Denmark.