Great Lakes Bioenergy research consistently results in new discoveries and new technologies. Here, we highlight high-impact research from all three of our research areas.
With the goal of ultimately engineering bioenergy crops to accumulate large amounts of easily digestible sugars, researchers from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) have identified a transcription factor that is highly co-expressed with the major mixed-linkage glucan (MLG) synthase gene in the model grass Brachypodium distachyon. Characterization of downstream genes regulated by this transcription factor provides insight into the mechanism of MLG production and restructuring, information vital to overcoming known growth defects associated with MLG synthase overexpression.
Identification of a secondary metabolite gene cluster in budding yeasts with important implications for biofuel production
The iron-binding molecule pulcherrimin was described 65 years ago, but the genes responsible for its production in budding yeasts remained uncharacterized. Genomic comparisons across 90 species of the budding yeast subphylum Saccharomycotina revealed a four-gene cluster associated with pulcherrimin production, and targeted gene disruptions in Kluyveromyces lactis revealed likely functions for each of the genes: two biosynthetic enzymes, a transporter, and a putative transcription factor.
Recent advancements from the lignin biosynthetic research community provide a greater understanding of lignin composition and structure, including revelations about new, previously unknown components of the lignin polymer; this makes it possible to imagine what features an “ideal lignin” might have. In this collaborative study, GLBRC researchers and their colleagues describe the ideal nature of catechyl lignin (C-lignin) via a revised compositional characterization, advantageous features in regard to reactivity and stability, and their successful attempt to convert C-lignin polymers to monomers in near-quantitative yields.
This holistic biomass-to-wheels analysis showed that, contrary to conventional wisdom, seeking atom-economical biomass-to-fuel strategies may not necessarily be the optimal objective towards the development of the next generation biofuels. In addition to carbon yield, the study identified the energy requirements of the process and the resulting biofuel type and quality to be key factors that should be considered simultaneously in the selection of alternative biofuels and development of new biofuel strategies.
Natural genetic diversity of yeast aids in identification of genes involved in ionic liquid (IL) tolerance
In this study, researchers examined natural diverse isolates of Saccaromyces cerevisiae for tolerance to ILs and identified two genes associated with this outcome. Analysis of specific gene variants suggests that tolerance may be governed in part by the degree to which ILs can be pumped out of cells.
Bioenergy cropping systems can act as sinks or sources of atmospheric carbon dioxide, depending on the balance between the formation and decomposition of organic carbon.
GLBRC researchers processed and experimentally quantified ethanol production from five different herbaceous feedstocks: two annuals (corn stover and energy sorghum) and three perennials (switchgrass, miscanthus, and restored prairie). They determined that a range of plant types could be used in a lignocellulosic ethanol refinery without having a major impact on field-scale ethanol yield, which represents the ethanol production per land area.
In this study, GLBRC researchers tested the hypothesis that microbial communities could be used to produce valuable compounds, such as medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), from lignocellulosic stillage. Techno-economic analyses showed that, at the productivity of MCFAs achieved in this study, valorizing lignocellulosic ethanol stillage to MCFAs could improve the economic sustainability of a biorefinery.
Unlike harvest of corn stover, which is linked to grain harvest, timing of harvest for energy grasses such as switchgrass is relatively flexible. In this study, GLBRC scientists aimed to determine if switchgrass harvest could be timed to maximize beneficial impacts on fermentation while avoiding production of harmful degradation compounds.
As plant breeding programs embrace the idea of the biorefinery, lignin is emerging as a potential feedstock for commodity chemicals. To improve our understanding of lignin’s chemical structure and find potential bioproducts in lignin, GLBRC researchers developed a powerful analytical method to identify new and low-abundance compounds within the complex lignin biopolymer.