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Tiny wood-borers reveal new enzyme that could help turn waste paper into fuel

09 June 2013

Scientists studying tiny wood-boring beetles have taken an important step in the quest to turn old rubbish such as paper and wood into liquid fuel.

Limnoria – the wood-eating gribble (image: Laura Michie, University of Portsmouth, using the confocal microscopy facilities at the Natural History Museum)

Using Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron facility which is largely funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, researchers have identified a key enzyme used by the marine-borer or ‘gribble’ to break down wood.

They now hope to reproduce the effect of this enzyme on an industrial scale to create sustainable liquid biofuels – a process that is currently difficult and very expensive.

Creating liquid fuel from woody biomass involves breaking down sugar polymers that make up the bulk of materials, into simple sugars and fermenting them to produce liquid biofuels.

Researchers turned their attention to studying gribble because they are notorious consumers of wood that have been known to destroy seaside piers. Scientists want to mimic in industry, the organism’s natural processes.

Advanced biochemical analysis and X-ray imaging techniques at Diamond Light Source  allowed researchers from the University of York, University of Portsmouth and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the USA to visualise the position of every single atom in the enzyme - a vital step towards being able to reproduce it.

John McGeehan, a structural biologist from the University of Portsmouth team, said that rather than magnify the enzyme with a lens as in a standard microscope, they fired an intense beam of X-rays at the crystals to generate a series of images that could be transformed into a 3D model. "The Diamond synchrotron produced such good data that we could visualise the position of every single atom in the enzyme,” said Dr McGeehan.


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