Wheat straw, the dried stalks left over from grain production, is a potential source of biofuels and basic chemicals. But before straw can be converted into useful products by biorefineries, the polymers that make it up must be broken down into their basic building blocks. Now, researchers reporting in ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering have found that microbes in the guts of certain species of termites 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 to fuel in bioreactors. Lignin, on the other hand, is an aromatic polymer that can be converted into useful industrial chemicals. Enzymes in fungi can break down lignin, which is the most difficult of the three polymers to break down, but scientists are looking for bacterial enzymes that are easier to produce. In previous research, Guillermina Hernandez-Raquet and her colleagues had shown that gut microbes from four species of termites could degrade lignin anaerobically.
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