In a wood near you, powerful microbes quicken the decay of fallen tree branches. These adroit decomposers perform that essential role by producing specialized enzymes. In the United States and abroad, biofuels researchers prize these enzymes because they may speed and simplify the process of making bioethanol, and coproducts, from the cellulose in the cell walls of energy crops such as switchgrass.
One of the most sought-after of those specialty enzymes may now be easier for today's researchers to find. That's thanks to an assay created by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) chemist Charles C. Lee and colleagues at the agency's Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif.
High-speed and high-tech, but surprisingly affordable, the sophisticated assay equips scientists with a faster, less expensive way to discover genes that enable microbes to make an enzyme known as an alpha-glucuronidase. In nature, this enzyme cleaves glucuronic acid from hemicellulose and, in so doing, helps disassemble plant cell walls. Hemicellulose, cellulose and lignin are bound in a tight, complicated matrix that impedes other enzymes' ready access to the cellulosic sugars that are ideal for fermenting into bioethanol.