Unlocking wood biomass

Posted on 8 February 2018

Researchers in the Department of Chemistry have discovered a set of enzymes capable of breaking down one of the main components of wood. The enzymes could potentially contribute to the conversion of wood biomass into valuable chemical commodities.

Image of fungi which possess the newly disovered lytic xylan oxygenase enzymes, and an overall three dimensional structure of one of this class of enzymes.

The use of wood is taking on a new importance, as it is one of the most promising sources of advanced biofuels and plant-derived products. Notwithstanding its potential, however, cost-effective conversion of wood feedstocks is limited by a single key factor: its resistance to degradation by enzyme cocktails. As a result, current wood biorefineries utilize energy-demanding pre-treatment processes.

In new research, Professors Paul Walton and Gideon Davies from the University of York worked with French researchers from CNRS Marseille to discover enzymes that greatly increase the potential use of wood as a feedstock. In work published in Nature Chemical Biology, the research team reports a new family of enzymes called lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases (LPMOs). Importantly, LPMOs have been shown by the team to be capable of breaking down xylans, a form of recalcitrant polysaccharide commonly found in wood biomass. The new enzymes are isolated from fungi, which themselves play a vital role in the terrestrial carbon cycle and dominate wood decomposition in forests.  

The research builds on the key discovery that LPMOs are copper-containing enzymes, as reported by the team in York back in 2010. Specifically, the new discovery of the ability of lytic xylan oxidase to break down challenging wood biomass advances knowledge of the way in which woody biomass degrades in nature. Furthermore, these enzymes may underpin the development of improved enzyme cocktails for biorefinery applications using wood – unlocking its conversion into a wide range of valuable commodities.

This research, published in Nature Chemical Biology was funded by the European Commission, the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), and the French Infrastructure for Integrated Structural Biology (FRISBI).