Producing cheaper Ethanol

Researchers from Cornell University have discovered a new plant enzyme that could make the production costs of cellulosic ethanol much less expensive then todays processes.

The researches say the enzyme might potentially enable plant material used to make ethanol can be broken down more efficiently than is possible using current technologies.

Today’s technologies use enzymes from microbes called “cellulases.” The microbes digest and process the cellulose in grasses and such rapidly growing trees. The microbial enzymes have a structure that makes them very good at combining and digesting plant’s cell wall, lignocellulose. Lignocellulose is a combination of lignin (a special type of cellulose) and regular cellulose.

The researchers say the plant enzymes of this new class has structure similar to these.

Jocelyn Rose, Cornell’s assistant professor of plant biology, says that a critical step in producing cellulosic ethanol involves breaking down a plant’s cell wall material and fermenting the sugars that are released.

“This is the first example of a cellulose-binding domain in a plant cell wall enzyme.” Rose says. “The bottleneck for conversion of lignocellulose into ethanol is efficient cellulose degradation. The discovery of these enzymes suggests there might be sets of new plant enzymes to improve the efficiency of cellulose degradation.”

Jocelyn Rose also said while they found the new enzyme in a tomato plant, they have evidence to suggest that such proteins are present in many other species of plants as well, which could be used for even more biofuel production.

These findings will appear in the issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry on April 20th.

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