OSU researching bacteria to begin biofuel production process

By Oklahoma State University | June 02, 2016

The popular method of breaking down lignin to convert biomass into valuable biofuels and chemicals is done by using fungi. However, researchers at Oklahoma State University are turning that process on its head.

Babu Fathepure, associate professor in OSU’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, is leading a study to use bacteria, rather than fungi, to help in the bioconversion process.

Lignin is essentially the substance that holds cell walls together and provides toughness to the plant’s exterior. However, lignin encases cellulose and hemicellulose, preventing these components from bioconversion into fermentable sugars needed to produce valuable biofuels.

While Fathepure and his collaborators Rolfe Prade, microbiology and molecular genetics, and Patricia Canaan, biochemistry and molecular biology, are not the first to look at bacteria, they are in an exclusive group.

“We are one of the only few researchers in the country interested in exploring the role of bacteria in lignin degradation,” Fathepure said.  “Our research will answer some of the fundamental questions on how lignin is degraded in nature by bacteria and what genes and enzymes are needed for effective lignin degradation.”

As part of OSU’s BioBased Products and Energy Center, the researchers are helping develop environmentally sound biological pretreatment platforms for cost-effective bioconversion of plant biomass into biofuels.

“Results from this research will specifically contribute toward advancing pretreatment technologies needed for decentralized rural biorefineries, benefits rural economy and energy independence,” Fathepure said. “In addition, it would create a large number of biomanufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced because of the high transportation cost for biomass feedstocks compared with crude oil and coal.”

Estimates indicate bioenergy (wind, solar and biofuel) currently provides around 10 percent of the total global energy supply, while oil provides almost a third of the global energy, followed by coal and natural gas. Biofuels have tremendous potential to alleviate demand for petroleum products and decrease the greenhouse gas emissions.

“However, realizing the full potential of biomass energy will depend largely on developing new conversion technologies that are cheaper, more efficient and use a wider range of feedstocks,” he said. “Pretreatment is one of the most expensive steps in lignocellulosic ethanol production, thus has great potential to be improved and costs lowered through research and development.”

The potential benefits of this research are far reaching.

“This is particularly true for Oklahoma since it has vast farmland and is home to many important feedstocks” Fathepure said. “Because most biomass resources are in rural areas with lower economic opportunities on average, bioenergy systems can have large positive effects, including improved standard of living through access to energy and jobs.”These potential improvements in rural economies also may help to avoid the abandonment of land, while encouraging agricultural competitiveness and providing diversified income streams for farmers.

To assist the researchers in the discovery of novel lignin-degrading genes in bacteria, funding was provided by the Department of Transportation-Research and Innovative Technology Administration through the South Central Sun Grant Program.