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Biotech Science

Improving Nature's Top Recyclers 41

Posted by Soulskill
from the i-bet-they're-twice-as-productive-in-michigan dept.
aarondubrow sends in this snippet from an article at the Texas Advanced Computing Center: "Over billions of years, fungi and bacteria have evolved enzymes to convert abundant cellulosic plant matter into sugars to use as energy sources to sustain life. It's a great trick, but unfortunately, these enzymes don't work fast enough...yet. So computational scientists at NREL, in collaboration with a large experimental enzyme engineering group, set about trying to understand and design enhanced enzymes to ... lower the cost of biomass-derived fuel to serve the global population (abstract)."
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Improving Nature's Top Recyclers

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  • by gstoddart (321705) on Friday March 11, 2011 @05:04PM (#35457016) Homepage

    I can see it now ... Scientists engineer super-enzyme which wipes out all plant matter upon escape, wiping out all plant life. ;-)

    I'm sure it's a highly unlikely scenario, but I hope this isn't something which has some really bad unintended consequences.

    • by lwsimon (724555)

      Um.. enzymes are just proteins, they don't reproduce. There is no more danger of that occurring than there is of my spilling a vial of muriatic acid and it dissolving the whole Earth.

      • Um.. enzymes are just proteins, they don't reproduce. There is no more danger of that occurring than there is of my spilling a vial of muriatic acid and it dissolving the whole Earth.

        I guess that would depend on how big the vial of HCl was that you spill...

      • Um.. enzymes are just proteins, they don't reproduce. There is no more danger of that occurring than there is of my spilling a vial of muriatic acid and it dissolving the whole Earth.

        I would guess it would depend on how they will produce the enzyme(s). If it's going to be created in a lab, then there's probably not much to worry about (at least in regards to it "escaping"). If they are going to engineer a fungus, bacteria, or some other life form to produce it then it has the potential to be a little more problematic if it makes it into the wild. But that's just crazy talk. We humans have an impeccable track record in regards to keeping things like this contained. What could possibly go

        • by RockDoctor (15477)

          But that's just crazy talk. We humans have an impeccable track record in regards to keeping things like this contained. What could possibly go wrong? ;-)

          Your cynicism is reasonably well-founded.

          I would guess it would depend on how they will produce the enzyme(s). If it's going to be created in a lab, then there's probably not much to worry about (at least in regards to it "escaping"). If they are going to engineer a fungus, bacteria, or some other life form to produce it then it has the potential to be a l

      • Except that, unlike acids, enzymes are catalysts—they aren't used up in the reaction. Ergo, the enzymes can ideally continue turning plants into sugar so long as the enzymes and plants remain in contact. The only real limits (apart from source materials) are contamination, dispersion, and chemical breakdown.

        Moreover, these enzymes aren't being used by themselves; they're produced inside fungi and bacteria. If these hosts should happen to escape, there is at least the possibility that they could multip

        • Luckily, should an outbreak of super-digester bacteria occur, we can simply dust it with Ice-9, which should stop it in its tracks.
          • by Thing 1 (178996)
            Yeah just don't listen to Bokonon, then you'll end up destroying the world. (Well, your world.)
    • Oh, we'll just engineer them to require lysine to reproduce. We'll control the supply, so if they get out of control they'll gradually die off.

      Easy peasy!

  • Or does anybody else see a potential problem with accelerating the rate at which bacteria and fungi can convert biomass into puddles of sugary goo? My house is biomass, my clothes are biomass, my family and I are biomass... It's already hard enough to kill unwanted fungi, ask anybody who has had athlete's foot. If it were aggressive and fast, think what a nightmare you could have.
    • by jd (1658)

      The bacteria you should worry about are the ones that consume metal. Accelerating those could do some really nasty things. (They're already doing nasty things in Britain [mmu.ac.uk].)

      (Such bacteria could be quite interesting in mining metals that are hard to extract in their normal ore form. Convert the metal from a hard-to-extract form to an easy-to-extract form. So long as you could keep them where they should be.)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 11, 2011 @05:41PM (#35457430)

    I'm going to fire a full salvo here, as an industrial chemist acutely involved in this area of research.

    >abundant cellulosic plant matter

    Oh yeah. I can't not remember a 30-year-old book I read that the most pressing problem in converting biomass into fuel is not processing, but the lack of availability of cheap biomass. The price of oil has to go up significantly and remain at that price for years in order for biomass to become competetive. The situation has not changed.

    >into sugars

    Converting cellulose into sugars makes little sense by enzymatic processes given that land suitable for growing trees is rather efficiently maintained for timber and pulp production. Real "arable land" suitable for food production is used for that already. In both cases, the key word is "added value": timber, pulp and food are all higher value than energy.

    >these enzymes don't work fast enough

    And what about elementary reaction kinetics, transport processes and these things called physical absolutes? As we nicely see from the simulation, the enzyme does not attack the very crystallinity of cellulose directly. Cellulose has hard crystalline domains that have an intermolecular hydrogen-bonded structure not unlike that of kevlar. I can't see how this research shows practical ways to overcome this in a energetically feasible way. Nor does the bacteria do anything lignin, which would be analogous to the human attack on lignin: pump the mix full of base (lye) and nucleophiles (sulfide). Lignin forms a rather hard-to-deal with network of giant polymer, if you don't destroy it. Rather, the enzyme seems to "peel off" a cellulose strand at a time, which is necessarily slow. Furthermore, bacteria-based processes generally work at slow speed at high dilutions in water, which is not generally cost-wise acceptable in the energy or even bulk chemicals business. I've seen processes thrown out, out of hand, for this very reason.

    Another underappreciated fact in this business is that even trivial-sounding operations are expensive in relation to the added value of the whole process. A dollar a kilogram here or there isn't that much of problem in fine chemicals, but cents a kilogram can make or break an energy-producing process. In this case, I am very concerned of the pretreatments suggested. It's no secret how to degrade biomass into a more processable form - we've seen rather good technologies for years and decades already - but the dealbreaker is whether it's actually profitable, not if it's simply technologically feasible.

  • The smart people say that socialist economies are the worst - where recycling exists, this is entirely untrue! Due to the poverty, recycling is a very profitable enterprise. China has one of the world's best recycling rates, and the reason is due to the huge number of people who recycle.

    Unfortunately, Chinese don't recycle because of belief in socialism, they recycle because of the profit motive. :( Ideally, belief in cooperative management of allocation of resources would be the motivation. It is not

    • Chinese don't recycle because of belief in socialism, they recycle because of the profit motive.

      Sort of. The Chinese belief in socialism led directly to overpopulation, which led to resource depletion, which led to belief in capitalism and population controls.

      So, compared with 100 years ago, Chinese today aren't really "profiting" by having to recycle other people's trash. They're just un-fucking their economy from decades of mismanagement.

      It's like someone punching you in the face and then saying you're 'profiting' from reconstructive surgery.

  • Not completely off topic, I saw the headline and was immediately reminded that I sure wish there were a supply of dung beetles for temperate zones in the U.S. That way I wouldn't need to clean up all the dog poop in the back yard every week.

    You can buy ladybugs and mantids through the mail, why not dung beetles?

    I suspect though that they may not like dog poop any more than I do, and will fly off to the local zoo or nearby farms or hippie vegan communes where herbivores live

  • Build an oscillating time machine where the fungus exits out of the start of the feedback loop after it oscillates 1300 times. Just make sure that none of your engineers try to put themselves in the time machine or your stock price may plummet.

  • by hahn (101816)
    Why do people keep thinking they can "improve" nature without any consequences?
    • Because pumping oil out of the ground sucks really bad.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      We improve nature, for ourselves. Because we have, since before the beginning of civilization. Ever heard of domesticated plants and animals?

      Devastating consequences only happen when people guess about their situation badly, fail to find a better way of doing something and ultimately keep repeating the same action until something gives. Although mistakes have consequences, there's no way to avoid them by doing nothing. Time eventually collides with everything that tries to stand still.

      So, people that make b

    • How's that teosinte working out for you? Good and tasty? I'll bet. Good thing no one messed with nature there. The consequences would never be the same!

  • I've always seen Cellulosic ethanol and whatnot as a kind of cold fusion project. Beyond the difficulty of the process, why do we even need a new way of converting plant matter to this or that? We already have an awesome way to extract something useful from cellulose: fire. We can burn it no problem, and we have been developing the means to extract energy from that burning for the past several thousand years. It doesn't release extra CO2 into the atmosphere, because the trees have already extracted it.

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