Genomics and sustainable fuels
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[APRIL 21, 2006]
URBANA -- Genomics has a strong role to play in
the production of biofuels, energy sources that are renewable and
produced in farm fields, said a University of Illinois professor in
the Institute for Genomic Biology. Bryan White explained how
genomics relates to this process when he spoke last week at the
"Sustainable Bioenergy: Focus on the Future of Biofuels and
Chemicals" conference on the U of I campus.
"Basically, enzymes from cellulolytic organisms can be adapted
to use to break down various plant products, producing soluble
sugars that can be used for alternative energy sources," he
said. "The problem is finding the best ones and the ones that
will work most efficiently."
With advances in genomics,
scientists are learning more and more about cellulolytic
organisms and how they degrade various plant materials.
"Cellulolytic bacteria that live in the rumen of livestock
animals are a tremendous potential source for enzymes that can
break down plant material for the production of energy," he
said. "Ruminant animals have been eating all kinds of plants
since the beginning of time. Therefore, their enzymes have
adapted to handle a tremendous variety of plant materials."
However, the challenge comes in finding the right ones.
Genomics has shown that there are at least 200 enzymes that
could be involved in the process of degrading plant material.
"There are two ways to go about finding the right ones," he
said. "One way is termed genome mining. The genomes of the
enzymes can be visually inspected and the important enzymes
identified. Then, you clone them and test them on the particular
plant substance in which you are interested.
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"Obviously, with 200 possibilities, it can take quite a bit of
time to do a thorough analysis."
The second approach involves determining what particular enzymes
are produced in response to different needs. In essence, you grow
bacteria on different plant materials and see what enzymes are
expressed. That process identifies the correct ones.
"It is important to know what works best because, if you don't,
you won't have the most effective process for producing energy,"
This second approach is a metagenomics one. Rather than looking
at a single organism in its environment, it examines all of them as
"We know from using this approach that there is a
of genetic material in the rumen that we haven't even tapped yet,"
of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental
Sciences news release]