Enzyme Breaks Down Tough Chitin. Signals Breakthrough for Biofuel from Waste

September 8th, 2013 BY Saikat | No Comments

The hunt for novel enzymes that can break down waste and produce useful byproducts has been ongoing for long; especially, in the area of biofuels. The positive fallout could be enormous. It could help stave off world hunger as large tracts of land are being used up to grow crops like sugarcane for bio-fuels. Biofuels are easiest to make from crops like sugar cane, sunflowers or maize. But that comes at a cost of land for food cultivation.

Scientists claim to have discovered a new enzyme that can break down chitin. Chitin is a stiff material with a structure similar to cellulose. It is found in crustaceans like lobsters or crabs, and many insects. If there is an enzyme for chitin, there should be one for cellulose too.

Gustav Vaaje-Kolstad, a Norwegian scientist who led the study told Reuters,

“There are strong indications that similar enzymes exist that work on cellulose. We regard this as a breakthrough. Our goal is to make more valuable production from waste.”

Other scientists around the world also share this common goal and numerous successes have been recorded in the attempts to breakdown particular type of wastes. Gustav Vaaje-Kolstad showed how the enzyme had broken down a sample of chitin and produced a white cloudy liquid. He said,

“One of the most important bottlenecks in producing second generation biofuels is the process of going from biomass to soluble sugars.”

In their process, the team lead by Gustav used an enzyme from the bacterium Serratia marcescens. The bacterium causes a reaction on the surface of crystallized chitin. That primes the chitin for breakdown by other enzymes. A previous process attempted five years back by the same team had taken 48 hours to breakdown chitin. The latest one took just about 2 hours. Of course, this breakthrough came under lab conditions. The scientists also realize that much more work needs to be done so that the same results could be replicated in the field and on a mass scale.

On a positive note, Gustav said,

“We are working on a laboratory scale. Sometimes these things are not applicable on a large scale. But we think that it should be possible.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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