Fungal Enzymes Tested for Production of Renewable Energy from Wood

An international group of researchers, including scientists from the University of York, have discovered a set of enzymes originating in fungi that can break down one of the key components of wood.

The role fungi plays in breaking down wood within the carbon cycle inspired researchers to investigate the mechanisms that allow this process to take place. (credit: University of York)

The enzymes could now probably be used to sustainably convert wood biomass into beneficial chemical commodities such as biofuels.

As an alternative to oil and coal, wood is progressively one of the more promising sources of advanced biofuels. However, in spite of its potential, it is a difficult material to break down.

Current wood biorefineries have to use pre-treatment processes, making the conversion of wood into products and fuels costly and energy-consuming.

A key discovery

In ecosystems fungi have an important role to play in breaking down wood within the carbon cycle, discharging nutrients back into the soil. This property of fungi inspired the team to explore the mechanisms that allow this process to occur.

Back in 2010 we made the key discovery that a group of enzymes found in fungi, contain copper – these enzymes are now known to be an important component in the decomposition of biomass by biology. This research builds on that work by identifying further enzymes from this class which have the ability to break down wood’s challenging molecular structure.

Professor Paul Walton, The Department of Chemistry, The University of York

“These enzymes may underpin the development of improved enzyme cocktails for biorefinery applications using wood – unlocking its conversion into a wide-range of valuable commodities in a sustainable way.” Added Walton.

The study, published in Nature Chemical Biology, has revealed that the group of enzymes, known as lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases (LPMOs), can break down xylans – carbohydrate molecules usually found in wood biomass that are principally resistant to degradation.

A step closer to a sustainable 21st Century

Working in partnership with French researchers from the Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) Marseille, the team isolated the enzymes from fungi that play a crucial role in the terrestrial carbon cycle and govern wood decomposition in forests.

The paper’s co-author of Gideon Davies from the Department of Chemistry at the University of York said, “The findings advance our knowledge of the way in which woody biomass degrades in nature.”

This discovery unlocks the key scientific challenge of how biorefineries can convert wood into biofuel in an environmental and cost-effective way, bringing us a step closer to a sustainable 21st Century.

Gideon Davies, The Department of Chemistry, The University of York

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