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Researchers Find Wood-Digesting Enzyme In Bacteria 86

Posted by timothy
from the as-long-as-it-doesn't-like-cosmoline dept.
AffidavitDonda writes with news that University of Warwick and University of British Columbia researchers have "identified the gene for breaking down lignin in a soil-living bacterium called Rhodococcus jostii. Although such enzymes have been found before in fungi, this is the first time that they have been identified in bacteria. The bacterium's genome has already been sequenced which means that it could be modified more easily to produce large amounts of the required enzyme. In addition, bacteria are quick and easy to grow, so this research raises the prospect of producing enzymes which can break down lignin on an industrial scale. By making woody plants and the inedible by-products of crops economically viable the eventual hope is to be able to produce biofuels that don't compete with food production."
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Researchers Find Wood-Digesting Enzyme In Bacteria

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  • I should probably start buying up some forest just about now...

  • Since dandelions grow everywhere, it would be nice if they figure out how to make biofuel out of dandelions (and other weeds).
  • Termites? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Saturday June 11, 2011 @04:37PM (#36413144) Homepage Journal

    Haven't termite gut bacteria been known to digest wood for years?

    • Haven't termite gut bacteria been known to digest wood for years?

      Maybe [nih.gov]. Sort of [annualreviews.org]. Perhaps. I had thought so as well, but a quick Google search indicates that those bugs are not well characterized. Having a single organism with a defined enzyme is obviously an easier system to scale up than the stomach of an insect.

      • by rubycodez (864176)
        they were well characterized, in the 1970s when oil embargo caused huge interest in alternate energy including plant matter conversion to biofuel. And no, you don't get a link since most human knowledge is NOT on the internet (try your local University library instead).. Being nearly 50, I'm amazed at the "new discoveries" that are repeats of the same shit, different decade.
        • by Zorpheus (857617)
          Like this [asm.org] or this [sgmjournals.org]? Nearly every major historic scientific publication can be found on the internet nowadays. Biology is not my area though, so I will not try to dig deeper in this.
          • Nearly every major historic scientific publication can be found on the internet nowadays.

            Stop eating my lawn!

            • by Sulphur (1548251)

              In "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" Euell Gibbons recounts a Depression era story of eating grass in a lady's front yard.

                She came out to ask what was going on, and he said "Lady, I'm so poor that I have to eat grass."

              She said come around back, it is much better there.

          • by rubycodez (864176)
            That would be nice if most research were done by schools (that publish in those publications). But it isn't and wasn't. Could be a bad thing, but that's the way it was and is.
            • by Zorpheus (857617)
              What do you mean? This sounds interesting. In my area everything seems to be published in these journals, some things from industry only in patents, or it is not published at all. Ok some information could be found in old PhD thesises, which could only be found at the university where they were published. Are there other sources?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      the trouble with that bacteria is that it requires a strange growth environment, one not easily reproducible on an agar plate.

      honestly, inability to reproduce growth in isolation has severely limited our ability as biologists to isolate and sequence the greater part of bacteria and fungi. some estimates put our thorough knowledge of bacteria at less than 5% of the species out there. We have barely scratched the surface of genome sequences just due to our limitations in labs.

      Dr. Venter did an interesting se

  • Er... what about natural flora of ruminant alimentary tract? They digest cellulose.
  • What are the chances of this thing getting out and eating all our forests? A kind of brown, pulpy goo....

    • by blueg3 (192743)

      There are lots of organisms that digest wood. That's why dead wood rots and eventually turns into (a component of) soil. Living trees fight off these organisms.

  • Soil depletion (Score:4, Insightful)

    by macraig (621737) <mark@a@craig.gmail@com> on Saturday June 11, 2011 @05:35PM (#36413530)

    So what will be left from crop harvests to fold back into the soil and preserve some bare shred of soil fertility if we even harvest the "inedible by-products"? Why do people overlook soil in the lifecycle? Soil contains chemicals, which plants take up and use to construct themselves; if you remove the entire plant and don't fold something truly equivalent back into the soil, then over time the soil becomes depleted of chemicals needed to sustain the process.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Don't worry we have plenty of oil based fertilizers for that!

      • by macraig (621737)

        For the time being we do. If Peak Oil comes and goes, will we favor making fertilizer, plastics, or fuel with what's left? Where do we make those 'budget cuts'? They're gonna hurt.

        (I know, you were being sarcastic.)

      • by macraig (621737)

        Oh, and of course synthetic fertilizers only replace the Big Three chemicals. All the others that a plant might need suffer attrition.

    • I've always wondered about this. I garden at home, and in the fall I gather the bags of leaves that neighbors set out to put in my compost pile. Why they would just throw away perfectly good biodegradable material and then turn around and buy bags of gardening soil is beyond me. The symbol of Lebanon is the Cedar tree. Do we associate forests with Lebanon or just a dried-out desert? They lost their soil's fertility and can't get it back.

      I think that just about the only "bio" fuel that would work withou

      • by macraig (621737)

        Of course if we weren't (ab)using so much synthetic fertilizer - and weren't overpopulating the planet - then perhaps the rivers and lakes wouldn't be so awash in nirtrogen? Just a thought....

    • by timeOday (582209)
      Are farmers plowing under corn husks and wheat chaff now? If not, where does this all go? (Pig feed maybe?)
      • by macraig (621737)

        Dunno. I might know if my paternal branch of the family had remained in farming.

      • Re:Soil depletion (Score:5, Informative)

        by Troggie87 (1579051) on Saturday June 11, 2011 @09:36PM (#36414958)

        I can't speak for the large operations, but on the small (thousand-ish) acre farm where I grew up we baled cornstalks just like hay or straw. The big cornstalk bales are piled off to the side where they are used as animal bedding (either in the feedlot sheds or pushed around in the fields for the roaming herds). It gives the animals a warm comfortable place to sleep, mostly just during the winter. Once it thaws or becomes too messy the shed is cleaned into a manure spreader, and flung onto fields that need it (either visibly or based on a soil analysis). Generally this results in the poo+cornstalks being plowed back in at the start of spring.

        I know its not popular on here, but there is a point at which you just have to accept that humans change their environment, and there will be casualties. Rather than wasting a bunch of money fighting and regulating every industry on the planet, its probably more realistic to regulate enough to make the environment safe for people and buy separate reserves to set aside for animal habitat. Its not a solution I like either, but turning back the clock on over a hundred years of industrial progress just isn't going to happen.

        Not to mention there is a law of diminishing returns on farm regulation: past a certain point, regulation make small scale farming infeasible. But large scale farms are far and away more likely to use "unfriendly" farming methods, largely because the connection to the land isn't there. If you over regulate (and its already happening) small farmers who are likely to care about the land get bought out by superfarms. Superfarms typically don't care about sustainability or the landscape. Two farms near us recently went under, and when they were purchased all the wooded areas that had been used for grazing were chopped and plowed under. The regulations that were supposed to help protect wildlife ended up doing tremendous harm.

        Another example is Monarch Butterflies. Monarchs feed exclusively on milkweed, and the best place to find milkweed as I grew up was on fence lines (typically between cow-pastures). As farms merge and pasture is being plowed in favor of large straight fields that giant farm implements can drive easily, these areas are vanishing (the idea that the price of corn is diving these changes isn't entirely true, the fact is that even if corn was dirt cheap its more cost effective for a large farm to grow it in giant straight fields with giant implements). Not surprisingly, experts are now worried about declining Monarch populations. Food for thought, I hope.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Um we don't take the whole plant. We take as much of the energy as possible.
      For example in biogas production you get gas(mostly the CH4 we want) and the liquid/solid remains wich are then used as fertilizer. A better fertilizer (and less smelly) than the untreated plantsor waste products themself. The problem with lignin is that it contains energy we can not get at in an efficient manner, the right enzymes could change that.
      When you burn wood you get out the energy in the form of fire, but you still get ash

      • by macraig (621737)

        I don't agree that process is sustainable. You think that what's removed is trivial and unimportant to sustainability and long-term - multi-generational - soil fertility, and I disagree; I think it all matters and is non-trivial, which is precisely why ecological processes have evolved the way they have. Also, not to nitpick *too* much but hydrocarbons and 'carbos' aren't actually energy, they're potential energy... which is why we use them as food and fuel to release actual energy.

  • Burning things is bad. No, seriously, we don't have engines that burn clean enough to not produce pollutants.

    I'm aware that creating batteries also produces pollutants, but what about aluminum/ceramic super-capacitors? Reusable, Non toxic, recyclable, self preserving (I've trickled slowly increasing amounts of electricity into 25 year old aluminum/ceramic capacitor circuits to bring them back into operation -- the more you use them, the more stable they are). Surely producing and recycling aluminum ca

    • ...but what about aluminum/ceramic super-capacitors?

      The fundamental nature of the problem can be understood if you go online and look up "horsepower to kilowatt". Then enter in an example of the HP rating of your favorite small car and see what number pops out.

      From the kilowatts listed, you can decide your minimal accepted run time in kilowatt hours, convert that to joules, and find out how many 3000 farad ultracaps you might need. The answer is a gawdawful lot.

      Problem is, chemical energy is very, very de

    • by codepunk (167897)

      "I'm aware that by manipulating electro magnetism, you can propel vehicles without producing exhaust pollution of any kind"

      Well you had better hurry up and patent that shit because nobody else has been able to do it. Where do you think the electricity comes from that produces said magnetism?

    • Burning things is bad. No, seriously, we don't have engines that burn clean enough to not produce pollutants.

      Uhh, no. This is like saying "chemicals are bad" or "radiation is bad". You need to look at what you're burning. The great thing about bio-mass fuels is the concept of "carbon neutral" combustion. You grow a bunch of plants/trees which take carbon -out- of the atmosphere, turn those plants into fuel and a year or so later release the same amount of carbon back into the atmosphere when you burn the fuel. There is no net increase in CO2 levels which means there is no contribution to the greenhouse effect.

      On a

      • by DamonHD (794830)

        Agreed on the approximate CO2 neutrality, which is good, but the particulates (PM2.5s) can be very bad. I'm strongly in favour of adding biomass as (for example) a demand-callable electricity-generation fuel, but we have to pay attention to the PMs which can be hundreds of times higher than natural gas per kWh.

        Rgds

        Damon

  • Interesting where this bacterium was isolated from:
    Rhodococcus jostii sp. nov., isolated from a medieval grave. [nih.gov]

    "The taxonomic position of a bacterial strain isolated from the femur of the remains of Jost Lucembursky, margrave in Moravia, Brno (Czech Republic), was investigated by phenotypic, chemotaxonomic and molecular taxonomic methods..."

  • Because corn isn't food. Maybe hundreds of years ago when native americans were selectively breeding it. Even then, it was kinda crappy, and they had to supplement it carefully with other things or else they would suffer malnutrition. In the 20th century, we've genetically engineered all the nutrients out or corn, making it mostly a source of lousy sugar. Corn is more useful to make fuel and biodegradable plastic than it is as a food.

    • Good point. Too many decades of propaganda and processed calories have blinded us to this fact.

    • by Ardeaem (625311)

      Because corn isn't food.

      Tell that to all the people in the world [wikipedia.org] to whom it is a staple. When prices go up, people suffer. Just because you don't think corn ethanol should complete with food production doesn't mean it doesn't compete, here in the real world.

  • They might actually use the gene to genetically modify aneoribic bacteria and produce biofuels out of rotting wood which will end up as CO2 in the atmosphere either ways!

    fungus digests the wood as an energy source. Wood is made up of cellulose and lignin. Cellulose is a carbohydrate and is completely metabolized by the fungus and breaks down into the carbon dioxide and water. Cellulose ----> carbon dioxide + water

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