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New molecule may aid in production of biofuels and fungi-resistant plants

In a recent study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, scientists report on the discovery of a new molecule that is essential for degradation of the biopolymer chitin. This new molecule could eventually aid in the engineering of fungi-resistant plants and could also lead to the discovery of similar molecules that can be used in cellulose-based biofuel production.

The research appears as the "Paper of the Week" in the August 5 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology journal.

"Chitin is an insoluble molecule that consists of tightly packed chains of polymerized sugars," explains study author Dr. Vincent G. H. Eijsink of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. "It is synthesized by different crustaceans, mollusks, algae, insects, fungi and yeasts and is a major structural component of these organisms. For example, chitin gives strength and stiffness to the shells/cuticles of shrimps and insects and to the cell walls of fungi. Because chitin is an abundant resource and, most importantly, because it occurs in several types of plague organisms and parasites, chitin degradation is of great interest to humanity. For example, insects might be combated by interfering with their chitin metabolism. Insect viruses need to degrade insect chitin for infection. Fungi may also be combated by degrading the chitin in their cell walls."

More than one billion tons of chitin are produced by insects, fungi, and marine organisms every year. Despite this abundant production, chitin does not accumulate in most ecosystems, indicating that the molecule is somehow degraded. Many aquatic and terrestrial microorganisms produce enzymes called chitinases which are responsible for breaking down chitin. Because chitin is a very tough molecule, chitinases have quite a challenge. In order to break the bonds between the sugar units, they must gain access to the bonds by somehow disrupting the packing
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Source:American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology


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