Biofuels Helped Out By Heat Loving Microbes

It would make sense that the microbes that live in hot springs would also have a tolerance for high heat, but bioprospectors from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Maryland School of Medicine have found a microbe that eats cellulose near the boiling point of water.

The microbe is only the second member of the ancient Archea group, a thermophilic microbe that contains a cellulase, an enzyme that breaks down cellulose. This microbe, found in Nevada, has the highest heat-tolerant enzyme to date with the cellulase, named EBI-244, most active at temperatures of 228 degrees Fahrenheit.

Geothermal Pool in Nevada

image via University of Maryland

While this discovery might not seem to  have practical applications at first, the scientists are looking at ways to utilize the enzyme from the microbe for extreme industrial processes, including changing hard to digest fibers into biofuels. This enzyme is extremely stable and can work in hot solutions that could be used to pre-treat feedstocks like Miscanthus that would more easily liberate cellulose.

Researchers are looking into other types of cellulase that can be used for a variety of operations. Currently, the EBI-244 is not practical for every use as the temperature for productivity is too high for some processes. Still, protein engineers are looking at ways to incorporate the robustness of the wild enzyme and incorporate it into something that can also work at lower temperatures. Eventually, these natural enzymes could help greatly reduce the processing time of biofuels and in turn reduce costs.