Professor Michelle O'Malley Research on Making Better Biofuels

February 22, 2016

The quickest way to the heart may be through the stomach, but researchers found that the quickest way to achieve clean energy is through the stomach too! Specifically, by making use of enzymes that goats use to digest anything that passes through its stomach.

Titled "Early-Branching Gut Fungi Possess A Large, Comprehensive Array Of Biomass-Degrading Enzymes," the study showed that a natural enzyme found in a goat's guts might give the biofuel industry a much needed boost.

We probably all know that the biofuel industry is caught in a Catch-22: there are farms that support it and want to plant biofuel crops, but cannot make the switch in fear of endangering the food supply. Biofuel companies, on the other hand try to make do with what they can get their hands on, but processes raw materials undergo increase the cost of production. That is where the goats come in.

Goats can practically eat anything and their stomachs can handle the digestion process without much stress. The researchers, led by Professor Michelle O'Malley, harnessed the anaerobic gut fungi from the excrements of goats to determine just how big the range of materials it can break down really is and how much more effective it is against commercial processes.

During their tests, the team found that the fungi changed the type of enzyme it produces depending on the material it is attempting to break down. Not only that, it also broke down the raw materials substantially better.

The findings could lead the biofuels industry to produce its fuel substantially cheaper and pave the way for clean energy.

"Because gut fungi have more tools to convert biomass to fuel, they could work faster and on a larger variety of plant material. That would open up many opportunities for the biofuel industry," O'Malley said.

The study was published in the journal Science last Thursday, and was conducted by researchers from the University of California - Santa Barbara, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Harper Adams University.

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