Sunday, May 24, 2009

Microbiology to save the world

Well, maybe that title exaggerates just a bit, but we are seeing some interesting results from a recent meeting of the American Society of Microbiology. As described in one report, my colleagues have found a way to convert biomasses into biofuel that can be used to decrease our dependence on oil. Here is a sample of the report, but the entire abstract can be read here.

Researchers are looking at alternate biomasses as food for microorganisms to ferment into ethanol. The most attractive are known as lignocellulosic biomass and include wood residues (including sawmill and paper mill discards), municipal paper waste, agricultural residues (including sugarcane bagasse), dedicated energy crops (like switchgrass) or the non-edible parts of corn like cobs, stalks or stover. The problem is, unlike corn starch, the sugars necessary for fermentation are trapped inside the lignocellulose part of this plant biomass. The key to ending the food versus fuel debate is unlocking the sugars trapped in cellulosic biomass.

To do that, some scientists have taken a page out of the playbook of the pharmaceutical industry. Pharmaceutical companies routinely use a process known as high throughput screening to rapidly test thousands of compounds for potential new drugs. Martin Keller at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the DOE bioenergy research center director, and his lab have adapted the method to rapidly test poplar tree samples for their ability to give up sugars.

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