Wheat straw, the dried stalks of grain production, is a potential source of biofuels and basic chemicals. Before straw from biorefineries can be turned into useful products, the polymers that make it up must be broken down into their basic building blocks. Researchers who report in ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering have now found that microbes in the intestines of certain termite species can help break down lignin, a particularly tough polymer in straw.
In straw and other dried plant materials, the three main polymers – cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin – are intertwined in a complex 3D structure. The first two polymers are polysaccharides, which can be broken down into sugars and then converted into fuel in bioreactors. Lignin, on the other hand, is an aromatic polymer that can be converted into useful industrial chemicals. Enzymes in mushrooms can break down lignin, which is the most difficult of the three polymers to break down. However, scientists are looking for bacterial enzymes that are easier to make. In previous studies, Guillermina Hernandez-Raquet and her colleagues had shown that intestinal microbes from four termite species can anaerobically break down lignin.
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