CHAMPAIGN, Ill. When it comes to breaking down plant matter and converting it to energy, the cow has it all figured out. Its digestive system allows it to eat more than 150 pounds of plant matter every day. Now researchers report that they have found dozens of previously unknown microbial enzymes in the bovine rumen the cow's primary grass-digestion chamber that contribute to the breakdown of switchgrass, a renewable biofuel energy source.
The study, in the journal Science, tackles a major barrier to the development of more affordable and environmentally sustainable biofuels. Rather than relying on the fermentation of simple sugars in food crops such as corn, beets or sugar cane (which is environmentally costly and threatens the food supply) researchers are looking for better ways to convert the leaves and stems of grasses or woody plants to liquid fuel. These "second-generation" biofuels ideally will be "carbon neutral," absorbing as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as is emitted in their processing and use.
But breaking down and releasing the energy in the plant cell wall is no easy task.
"The problem with second-generation biofuels is the problem of unlocking the soluble fermentable sugars that are in the plant cell wall," said University of Illinois animal sciences professor Roderick Mackie, an author on the study whose research into the microbial life of the bovine rumen set the stage for the new approach. "The cow's been doing that for millions of years. And we want to examine the mechanisms that the cow uses to find enzymes for application in the biofuels industry."
In previous studies beginning in 2008, Mackie and Washington State University professor Matthias Hess (then a postdoctoral researcher at the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute in California) used a decades-old technique for studying ruminant nutrition.
|Contact: Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor|
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign