One reason biofuels are expensive to make is that the organisms used to ferment the biomass cannot make effective use of hemicellulose, the next most abundant cell wall component after cellulose. They convert only the glucose in the cellulose, thus using less than half of the available plant material.
"Here at the EBI and other places in the biofuel world, people are trying to engineer microbes that can use both," explains University of Illinois microbiologist Isaac Cann. "Most of the time what they do is they take genes from different locations and try and stitch all of them together to create a pathway that will allow that microbe to use the other sugar."
Cann and Rod Mackie, also a U of I microbiologist, have been doing research at the Energy Biosciences Institute on an organism that they think could be used to solve this problem.
Mackie, a long-distance runner, found the microbe in the garbage dump of a canning plant while running in Hoopeston in 1993. He noticed the ground was literally bubbling with microbial activity and took samples. He and his son Kevin, who was in high school at the time, isolated microbes from the samples.
Among these was a bacterium that was later named Caldanaerobius polysaccharolyticus. "We found many exciting enzymes from this organism," says Cann, who joined the project when he came to Mackie's lab as a postdoctoral researcher.
Specifically, the bacterium contains all of the proteins and enzymes needed to break down xylan, which is the most common hemicellulose, and then to transport the fragments into the cell and metabolize them. All of the genes are located in a single cluster on the microbe's genome.