These microorganisms hold no intrinsic value, but they are able to break down materials in the grass cows eat that no other class of animals can process. Finding out how they do this is key to developing new biofuel technologies, experts say.
Cellulose and hemicellulose are two materials in plants that are not only useless to humans, but also impossible to digest within our guts. In cows, they are capable of sustaining the animals, their offspring, and the human population benefiting from various food products.
The class of microbes the collaboration investigated has eluded scientific scrutiny for a very long time, as scientists found it impossible to grow and study them in the tightly-controlled confines of scientific laboratories.
The new study was conducted by experts at the US Department of Energy (DOE) Joint Genome Institute (JGI) and the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), and consisted of a massive-scale DNA sequencing effort.
In a paper published in the January 28 issue of the top journal Science, the team reveals that the new data could allow for the cheaper and more energy-effective processing or plant biomass. The inability to do so is a great obstacle in the path of using biofuels widely.
The goal of biofuel research is to turn plant biomass into sugar. But this process is tremendously energy-intensive, and requires a host of expensive technologies that make this alternative source of energy unfeasible.
“Microbes have evolved over millions of years to efficiently degrade recalcitrant biomass,” explains the lead investigator for the study, and the director of the JGI, Eddy Rubin.
“Communities of these organisms can be found in diverse ecosystems, such as in the rumen of cows, the guts of termites, in compost piles, as well as covering the forest floor,” he adds.
“Microbes have solved this challenge, overcoming the plant’s protective armor to secure nutrients, the rich energy source that enables them and the cow to thrive,” the expert goes on to say.
Using the new genetic data, researchers might become able to develop new approach for plant biomass conversion, which would aid the world get rid of dirty fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal.