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How a Microbial Biorefinery Regulates Genes

February 14, 2013
The protein PcaV in the presence of protocatechuate

Digesting lignin, a very stable, plentiful polymer in biomass, is a limiting step in the production of biofuels. Brown researchers have identified a microscopic chemical switch that lets bacteria get to work, breaking lignin down into its component parts. Credit: Sello lab/Brown University

A group of researchers, including graduate student Jennifer Davis, have unlocked the genetic and molecular mechanisms behind a part of the process to break down plant biomass into the precursors of biodiesel or other commodity chemicals. These might one day be used to produce alternatives to petroleum. The potential of this “biorefinery” technology is limited by the fact that most microorganisms cannot break down lignin, a highly stable polymer that makes up as much as a third of plant biomass. Streptomyces bacteria are among few microorganisms known to degrade and consume lignin.

Jason Sello, professor of chemistry, and Rebecca Page, professor in biology in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry, directed the research with the graduate students. The results of their research are published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research.