PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] Microorganisms that can break down plant biomass into the precursors of biodiesel or other commodity chemicals might one day be used to produce alternatives to petroleum. But the potential of this "biorefinery" technology is limited by the fact that most microorganisms cannot break down lignin, a highly stable polymer that makes up as much as a third of plant biomass.
Streptomyces bacteria are among few microorganisms known to degrade and consume lignin. Now a group of researchers at Brown University has unlocked the genetic and molecular mechanisms behind a key part of that process. The results are published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research.
Jason Sello, professor of chemistry at Brown, and Rebecca Page, professor in biology in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry, directed the research with graduate students Jennifer Davis and Breann Brown.
"Aside from the implications for biotechnology, this work is significant because it yielded fundamental insights into how bacteria control the expression of their genes," Sello said. "Understanding how genes underlying lignin degradation are regulated could have practical importance in that we could possibly use this information to engineer bacteria that can convert this important component of plant biomass into the biofuels of high-value chemicals."
The consumption of lignin by Streptomyces bacteria is a multistep process. First, the bacteria release enzymes that depolymerize the lignin break it down into its constituent compounds. The bacteria take up the resulting compounds and use the carbon to support their growth and reproduction. Some of that lignin-derived carbon is converted into triglycerides, the building blocks of biodiesel, and other high-value compounds.
This latest research deals with the second part of that process, the ability of Streptomyces bacteria to metabol
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