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Jan Lyczakowski: A strategy to improve the processing of softwood to biofuels

last modified Oct 05, 2017 09:57 AM

A strategy to improve the processing of softwood to biofuels

In a paper recently published in Biotechnology for Biofuels (Lyczakowski et al., 2017; we are looking at a possible way to improve the processing of timber derived from conifers to biofuels. Softwood, as any other timber, is predominantly composed of plant secondary cell walls - an intricate matrix of polysaccharides and phenolic compounds which surround wood cells. Due to abundance of trees, plant secondary cell walls are the largest, renewable, resource of bioenergy on the planet.

In this work we engineer cell walls of a model plant Arabidopsis thaliana to evaluate which of its components are critical for maintaining the resistance of biomass to degradation to simple sugars. We discover that by genetic removal of Glucuronic acid branches from a polysaccharide xylan we can increase the yields of fermentable sugars by more than 300% compared to wild type plants. We use the sugars released from both types of biomass as a feedstock for bioethanol production and find out that the removal of glucuronic acid doubles the biofuel yields obtained from plant material.

The addition of glucuronic acid, which we have discovered to be a molecular determinant of biomass recalcitrance, is catalysed by GUX enzymes in A. thaliana. By mining large transcriptomic datasets we identify putative conifer GUX enzymes likely to be responsible for the addition of glucuronic acid onto softwood xylan. We then use biochemical and synthetic biology techniques to establish that a newly discovered gene – PgGUX is indeed an active glucuronic acid transferase encoded in a genome of White spruce (Picea glauca).

Importantly, Arabidopsis thaliana plants without glucuronic acid on xylan grow to the same height as wild type plants and produce the same amount of biomass. Therefore, we believe that the identification and characterisation of conifer GUX enzymes will allow for creation of conifer trees which can provide a superior feedstock for biofuel production. Finally, as improvement in sugar release observed for plants without active GUX enzymes is measured without any chemical or thermal pre-treatment of biomass, this work may support innovation in industrial processes looking for more environmentally benign ways of processing timber.

Publication details;

Lyczakowski J, et al. Removal of glucuronic acid from xylan is a strategy to improve the conversion of plant biomass to sugars for bioenergy. Biotechnology for Biofuels 2017 10:224. DOI: 10.1186/s13068-017-0902-1

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Jan Lyczakowski is a 2014 cohort PhD student in the BBSRC DTP Programme. He is currently researching the patterning of glucuronic acid decorations on xylan in the lab of Professor Paul Dupree in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. As part of the BBSRC DTP Programme Jan completed rotation projects in Biochemistry and a second rotation split between Professor Chris Abell in the Department of Chemistry and Professor Alison Smith in the Department of Plant Sciences. He is currently undertaking his Professional Internship for PhD Students (PIPS) at the CambPlants Hub, where he is mapping the bioenergy expertise at the University of Cambridge.


Conifers Jan Lyczakowski Oct 2017