Bacteria seen as biofuel production key

May 14, 2012 at 8:30 PM
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LIVERMORE, Calif., May 14 (UPI) -- Understanding the makeup of a bacterium found in the soil of a tropical rainforest may lead to more efficient production of biofuels, U.S. researchers say.

The production of liquid fuels derived from plant biomass offers a promising technology for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels, but toxic chemicals, especially salty solvents, used in the first steps in the process are often harmful to bacteria then used to break down the biomass, they said.

Now scientists led by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California have discovered how certain bacteria can tolerate those man-made toxic chemicals used in making biofuels.

"Discovering microbes naturally tolerant to salty liquids and understanding their mechanisms of tolerance should significantly enhance biofuel production," Lawrence Livermore's Michael Thelen said.

Microbes in natural environments such as decomposing forest soils produce highly efficient enzymes to degrade biomass and are often able to adapt to stressful changes in their environment, the researchers found.

The researchers focused on enterobacter lignolyticus strain SCF1, a bacterium that can degrade biomass, and found SCF1 grows well in the presence of relatively high concentrations of the salty liquids used in a pretreatment step in biofuel production.

"Vigorous efforts to discover and analyze micro-organisms with properties similar to those of SCF1 have the potential to greatly benefit industrial processes," Thelen said.

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