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Seafarers’ scourge provides hope for biofuel future

Posted on 8 March 2010

For centuries, seafarers were plagued by wood-eating gribble that destroyed their ships, and these creatures continue to wreak damage on wooden piers and docks in coastal communities.

But new research by scientists at the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre at the Universities of York and Portsmouth is uncovering how the tiny marine isopod digests the apparently indigestible.

By examining genes that are expressed in the guts of gribble, the researchers have demonstrated that its digestive system contains enzymes which could hold the key to converting wood and straw into liquid biofuels.

This may provide clues as to how this conversion could be performed in an industrial setting

Professor McQueen-Mason

In research published today, a team headed by Professor Simon McQueen-Mason and Professor Neil Bruce at York, and Dr Simon Cragg at Portsmouth reveal that the gribble digestive tract is dominated by enzymes that attack the polymers that make up wood. One of the most abundant enzymes is a cellulose degrading enzyme never before seen in animals.

The research is published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS).

Unlike termites and other wood-eating animals, gribble have no helpful microbes in their digestive system. This means that they must possess all of the enzymes needed to convert wood into sugars themselves.

Professor McQueen-Mason, of the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) in the Department of Biology at York, said: “This may provide clues as to how this conversion could be performed in an industrial setting.”

The scientists at York are now studying the enzymes to establish how they work, and whether they can be adapted to industrial applications. Perhaps one day soon seafarers will be sailing the seas on ships powered with biofuels produced with gribble enzymes.

Duncan Eggar, BBSRC Bioenergy Champion, said: “The world needs to quickly reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and sustainably produced bioenergy offers the potential to rapidly introduce liquid transport fuels into our current energy mix.”

The BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre is a £26M research investment by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and has six research programmes at universities and research institutes.

Notes to editors:

  • The paper ‘Molecular insight into lignocellulose digestion by a marine isopod in the absence of gut microbes’ is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
  • The BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre is a £26M investment that increases UK bioenergy research capacity. It brings together six world-class research groups. This creates a network with expertise and specialist resources that span the bioenergy pipeline from growing biomass to fermentation for biofuels. The centre’s programmes work closely with industrial partners. Ensuring that bioenergy is economically, environmentally and socially sustainable is core to the Centre's programmes. Life cycle analysis embeds this across the portfolio.
  • BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK  and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.  
  • The Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) is an academic research centre which specialises in gene discovery for plant- and microbial-based applications using biology to benefit society and to provide a sustainable future. Target-led programmes in CNAP are underpinned by fundamental and strategic research, funded by UK Research Councils particularly the BBSRC, charitable organisations, EU framework programmes and US funding agencies.
  • CNAP is part of the University of York’s Department of Biology, one of the leading centres for biological teaching and research in the UK. In the recent Research Assessment Exercise, the Department was equal first among broad spectrum bioscience departments. The Department both teaches degree courses and undertakes research across the whole spectrum of modern Biology, from molecular genetics and biochemistry to ecology.

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