With the current drive towards production of alternative fuels from plant material, enzymes which can break down this material into useable compounds are required in industrial quantities and at a low cost. One group of scientists from Texas A&M University have come up with a solution: using plants to make the enzymes.
Professor Zivko Nikolov, who leads the Bioseparations Lab, will describe their research on Monday 7th July at the Society for Experimental Biology's Annual Meeting in Marseille.
Traditional methods of generating enzymes for biofuel production currently operate at over five times the target cost required to make the fuels financially competitive. By using plants which have been engineered to make the proteins, Professor Nikolov believes that the target can be met. His group, which has expertise in the development of economic processing techniques, have designed processing strategies which allow multiple products to be obtained from each crop, making the whole process more economically viable.
"One of our projects focuses on producing cellulases, enzymes which can break down biomass, in maize seed. By carefully designing the processing chain, from a single crop of maize we can deliver oil that can be turned into biodiesel, cellulose that can be used to make other biofuels, and fibre and protein which can be used as animal feed, as well, of course as the enzymes themselves," he reveals. "These multiple products offset the outlay on the enzyme purification process, meaning we can make enzymes far more cost-effectively than is achievable using traditional fermentation methods, a result which we can also see in a similar sugarcane processing project."
In the 1990s there was much interest in using plants to make both industrial enzymes and pharmaceuticals, but in the last five years such industrial enzyme developments have gone out of fashion, largely due to production costs that simply weren't viable, combined with public unease. Now Professor Nikolov's group have brought this technology back into the picture.
"The economic improvements that we have delivered to the processing pathway, combined with a greater public acceptance of transgenic plants, mean that we can now develop the full potential of this technology. This in turn will bring us a step closer to the vital challenge of generating cheap alternative fuels over the coming decades," he concludes.
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