Bioenergy research

An investment of £27m in bioenergy research has been announced by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The money will support six research hubs of academic and industrial partners, one based at each of Cambridge, Dundee and York Universities, two at Nottingham as well as one at Rothamsted Research. Another seven universities and institutes are also involved, and 15 industrial partners across the hubs are contributing around £7m of the funding.

The research activities will cover many different stages of bioenergy production, from widening the range of materials that can be used as the starting point for bioenergy, to making the crops used for fuel production grow more efficiently.

At Cambridge University, researchers aim to develop strategies to improve the process of obtaining sugar from plants, so that more can be extracted from them. These sugars could then be converted to biofuels to power cars.

In addition, the Cambridge researchers will work with those at Rothamsted Research to improve the yields of fast growing trees and grasses and to make more of the plants’ carbon available for conversion into biofuels.

For its part, the Dundee-led research team aims to alter lignin production in barley to make it easier to produce bioenergy from waste straw. Lignin is a polymer in plants that makes it difficult to access sugars that are vital for bioenergy production.

The York researchers, on the other hand, are working with marine biologists at Portsmouth University to identify which enzymes in a gribble’s digestive tract are most efficient in breaking down wood.

The gribble – a wood-boring marine isopod – could hold the key to the production of sustainable carbon-neutral fuels, thanks to its unusual digestive system. Indeed, the scientists at York believe that potent digestive enzymes that the gribble produces to convert wood into the sugars they live on, could be harnessed as a crucial component in making liquid biofuels.

Prof McQueen-Mason, who is leading the research at York, said: ‘Most animals that consume wood have digestive tracts packed with microbes that help to digest the cell wall polymers, but the gribble’s is sterile, so it must produce all the enzymes needed to break down the wood itself. We have done extensive DNA sequencing of the genes expressed in its gut, and we have detected cellulases never seen in animals before. We want to see if it is possible to adapt these gribble digestive enzymes for industrial purposes.’