Creating liquid fuel from waste materials such as straw and wood involves breaking down sugary carbohydrates – which make up the bulk of the woody biomass – into simple sugars.
These are then fermented to produce liquid biofuels, which can be used to power automobiles and aircraft. The problem is, the process is currently too difficult and expensive to use on an industrial scale. Until now.
Meet the gribble.
Essentially, gribbles are the termites of the sea. That is, they’re marine pests that feed exclusively on wood. As you can imagine, that doesn’t make them very popular with the seafarers of the world.
But thanks to researchers from Britain and the United States, they could soon be used to make biofuel production more cost efficient.
The key lies in a highly acidic enzyme within gribbles that’s able to convert cellulose, an organic compound that’s used to produce paper, into sugar.
According to University of York Professor Simon McQueen-Mason, these enzymes “specifically chop off simple sugars from the long polymers that make up the cellulose, which makes up a lot of the woody material here. So effectively, they can convert part of the wood into simple sugars, though in this case the gribble takes up for its own nutrition. But in our case we are very interested in how we can convert things like wood into sugars that we can use to make biofuels.”
Indeed, the scientists were able to map out the gribble enzyme’s genetic blueprint – and transfer it to an industrial microbe that can produce it in large quantities.
As McQueen-Mason adds, “We’ve taken the enzyme from the gribble and we’ve then put it into a form where we can transfer that into an industrial fungal strain that produces enzymes for things like laundry detergents. We then persuade that fungus to produce very large quantities of exact copies of the copies that the gribble produces.”