Biofuel Breakthrough May Lurk In Cow

Researchers are using the cow as a window into how to improve techniques for breaking down cheap biofuel sources. Literally. They surgically implanted a portal into the cow rumen so they could easily put in mesh bags of switchgrass, then take them out to examine what sort of microbes had gone to work on the grass.

This was all part of a “massive-scale DNA sequencing” project undertaken by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Joint Genome Institute (JGI), working with the Energy Biosciences Institute, with an end goal of turning non-food materials like switchgrass viable into cellulosic ethanol. Doing so would not only be cheaper, but it would avoid driving up the price of corn, the most common source of ethanol.

image via Joint Genome Institute

“Microbes have evolved over millions of years to efficiently degrade recalcitrant biomass,” Eddy Rubin, director of the JGI and a lead on this study, said in the JGI’s outline of the research. “Microbes have solved this challenge, overcoming the plant’s protective armor to secure nutrients, the rich energy source that enables them and the cow to thrive.”

According to the University of Illinois, where animal sciences professor Roderick Mackie had a hand in the study, the researchers were ultimately able to identify 27,755 genes that were “carbohydrate-active.” They then cloned some of these genes into bacteria, producing 90 proteins, of which more than half “demonstrated enzymatic activity against cellulosic plant material.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.