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Hunting microorganisms for lignocellulosic biofuel

A consortium of research institutes, universities and industrial partners are looking for microorganisms with enzymes that could help process lignocellulosic biomass into biofuel.

The EU-funded project, known as DISCO, is searching for microorganisms that can degrade lignocellulosic material.

If successful, waste materials such as wheat straw, spruce chips and wheat bran could be turned into biofuel. As these materials contain a lot of lignocellulose, they are difficult to convert into simple sugar molecules needed for biofuel production.

The overall aim of the biofuel project is to find a cocktail of microorganism derived enzymes that can simultaneously breakdown the complex lignocellulose into simple sugars, and enable yeast co-fermentation to produce bioethanol.

The DISCO project is making use of libraries of microorganisms from around Europe. In the microorganism library at Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BUTE) – one of the DISCO partners – there are 4000 different microorganisms. A number of these have promising lignocellulosic enzyme activity.

“We’re looking to nature to find answers to the problem of efficiently generating next-generation biofuels from renewable sources, in this case from abundant waste materials from farming and industry,” says Professor Kristiina Kruus, an expert in the enzymology of plant cell wall polymers.

“That answer could literally be lying in the soil, in an undiscovered and uncharacterised microorganism.”

Initially, a pilot scale plant will be developed, but it is hoped that the DISCO biofuel project will lead to full scale plants producing biofuel across Europe.

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