Scientists at the University of York have studied the digestive system of a wood-eating crustacean to find out more about sustainably converting wood into biofuel renewable energy.
The wood-eating crustaceans which have been studied for their insights into converting wood into biofuel renewable energy are called gribbles. They are small marine invertebrates that have evolved to perform an important ecological role. They eat the abundant supplies of wood washed into the sea from river estuaries.
The wood-eating crustacean
The scientists have studied how the wood-eating gribble breaks through lignin, the highly resistant that hemocyanins, the same proteins that make the blood of invertebrates blue, are crucial to their ability to extract sugars from wood.
Professor Simon McQueen-Mason, from the Department of Biology at the University of York, who led the research team, said: “Gribble are the only animal known to have a sterile digestive system. This makes their method for wood digestion easier to study than that of other wood-consuming creatures such as termites, which rely on thousands of gut microbes to do the digestion for them. We have found that Gribble chew wood into very small pieces before using hemocyanins to disrupt the structure of lignin. GH7 enzymes, the same group of enzymes used by fungi to decompose wood, are then able to break through and release sugars.”
Renewable energy: converting wood into biofuel
The discovery about the gribble has brought scientists a step closer to identifying sustainable ways to convert wood into biofuel, a renewable energy alternative to fossil fuels.
The research has revealed that treating wood with hemocyanins enables more than double the amount of sugar to be released. This is the same amount that can be released with expensive and energy consuming thermochemical pre-treatments currently used in the industry.
Co-author of the paper, Professor Neil Bruce, from the Department of Biology, added: “In the long term this discovery may be useful in reducing the amount of energy required for pre-treating wood to convert it to biofuel. The cellulase-enhancing effect of the haemocyanin was equivalent to that of thermochemical pre-treatments used in industry to allow biomass hydrolysis, suggesting new options for bio-based fuel and chemicals production.”