Could Cows Make Biofuels Better?

Currently, large quantities of expensive enzymes are required to convert cellulose into sugars that can then be fermented to make biofuels.  A number of species such as termites and ruminants eat wood or grass and therefore have the same challenge.  Studying these microbes has been challenging since the vast majority cannot be isolated and grown in a laboratory.  

A team lead by Eddy Rubin (director of the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute) used metagenomics to sequence the genetic system of an entire microbe ecosystem, first in termites (2007) and most recently in cattle, where microbes in the rumen (part of the digestive tract) have adapted over millions of years to efficiently break down grass.   The study led to the discovery of several new microbes as well as a database of 28,000 genes that showed promise.  Of these, 90 have been studied and half produce enzymes which can break down cellulose.  The hope is that some of these enzymes are more efficient and are able to cope with exteme conditions.


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