This project builds on our previous work on the digestive systems of wood-boring and litter-feeding invertebrates and the discovery of lignocellulose-active enzymes (1-5). It expands to incorporate expertise in structural analysis and the degradation mechanism of lignocellulosic substrates by collaboration with Christopher Lancefield at the University of St Andrews.

Context

Lignocellulose (woody plant parts) is composed of roughly equal parts of cellulose (a linear polymer of glucose), hemicellulose (a complex polymer of various sugars) and lignin (a polyphenol). Between them, these polymers can provide us with sugars for fermentation to produce a range of products, and aromatic chemicals to replace those from the petrochemical sector. 

However, lignocellulose is a tough and durable material that is insoluble and hard to depolymerise selectively. At present, the costs of enzyme cocktails (and the associated pre-treatments) required for this decomposition represent the biggest cost barrier to producing economically competitive lignocellulosic  biorefineries.

Any improvement of lignocellulose deconstruction can have a big impact on the overall process efficiency and economics of sustainable bio-based industries.

The research 

Remarkably, a range of invertebrate animals from different phyla and subphyla have independently evolved the capability to thrive on a diet comprised of lignocellulose, and accomplish this with differing digestive strategies (1-6).

Differing digestive strategies

Enzymes in the guts of invertebrates prepare the lignocellulosic food for digestion by opening the complex composite material (stars) and enabling access to the polymers by enzymes for degradation. 

We propose to ultimately combine common features and unique specialisations from different invertebrate wood-digesting and litter-feeding species in order to develop effective in-vitro digestive strategies for lignocellulose deconstruction in an industrial context.

We are looking at three invertebrate marine wood-borers:

  • Limnoria ssp. (isopod crustacean, ‘gribble’)
  • Chelura terebrans (amphipod crustacean, ‘gribble’)
  • Lyrodus pedicellatus (bivalve mollusc, ‘shipworm’)

and at one terrestrial litter-feeder:

  • Thermobia domestica (insect, ‘firebrat’, ‘bookworm’)

Gribbles have sterile digestive systems, which means that their guts are free of any residential microbes. Shipworms have a different digestive strategy and supplement endogenous digestive enzymes with ones from endosymbiotic bacteria in their gills. Firebrats are known to efficiently digest crystalline cellulose and like gribbles do so without microbial assistance.

Project activities and publications

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Contact us

Julia Crawford
Administrator
julia.crawford@york.ac.uk
+44 (0)1904 328800
Department of Biology, University of York, Wentworth Way, York YO10 5DD

Featured researcher
 Juliana Sanchez Alponti

Juliana Sanchez Alponti

Dr Sanchez Alponti's research focuses on the characterisation of enzymes from the marine environment for efficient lignocellulose degradation.

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Featured researcher
Katrin Besser

Katrin Besser

Dr Besser's research focuses on enzyme discovery and characterisation for the realisation of efficient liquid biofuel production from plant biomass.

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Featured researcher
Neil Bruce

Neil Bruce

Professor Bruce's expertise is environmental biotechnology, biocatalysis, and biorefining.

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Featured researcher
Simon McQueen-Mason

Simon McQueen-Mason

Professor McQueen-Mason's research encompasses various aspects of lignocellulosic biorefining and biofuels.

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Dr Christopher Lancefield

Leverhulme Research Fellow, St Andrews University

 

Contact us

Julia Crawford
Administrator
julia.crawford@york.ac.uk
+44 (0)1904 328800
Department of Biology, University of York, Wentworth Way, York YO10 5DD