A microbe species found living in a Nevada hot spring was found to feature one of the most amazing cellulose-digesting enzyme in the world. The molecule allows the microorganism to break down the plant material at temperatures nearing 100 degrees Celsius.
Cellulose, one of the main materials in plants, cannot be broken down by the human intestines for example. It contains a lot of fiber, and some very specialized enzymes are required in order to break it down. Usually, the process takes place at lower temperatures.
But these microbes, in addition to living at temperatures that could boil water, are also capable of breaking down cellulose at the same time. The molecules was found by experts at the University of California in Berkeley (UCB) and the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSM).
Furthermore, it was established that the remarkable enzyme is most active at 109 degrees Celsius (228 degrees Fahrenheit), beyond the boiling point of water. This type of performances have never been seen in other species of microorganisms.
With this in mind, the researcher dubbed the organism an hyperthermophilic microbe. Commonly, it can be found in geothermal pool heated to a balmy 95 degrees Celsius (203 degrees Fahrenheit).
“These are the most thermophilic Archaea discovered that will grow on cellulose and the most thermophilic cellulase in any organism. We were surprised to find this bug in our first sample,” explains Douglas S. Clark.
He holds an appointment as an UCB professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and is also the coauthor of a new paper detailing the findings. The work is published in the latest online issue of the esteemed scientific journal Nature Communications.
The research team is conducting such investigations in order to find enzyme that engineers could then use to improve the results of extreme industrial processes, such as for example biofuel production.
“Our hope is that this example and examples from other organisms found in extreme environments can provide cellulases that will show improved function under conditions typically found in industrial applications, including the production of biofuels,” Clark explains.
The expert explains that these extreme environments include “high-temperature, highly alkaline or acidic, or high salt” systems.
“This discovery is interesting because it helps define the range of natural conditions under which cellulolytic organisms exist and how prevalent these bugs are in the natural world. It indicates that there are a lot of potentially useful cellulases in places we haven’t looked yet,” Clark concludes.