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Sailors’ historic scourge may hold the key to bioenergy future

Posted on 27 January 2009

For centuries a wood-boring marine isopod was considered little more than a nautical nuisance. It bored its way into the wooden hulls of ships, turning seafaring into an even more perilous undertaking.

But now the humble ‘gribble’ could hold the key to the production of sustainable carbon-neutral fuels, thanks to their unusual digestive system.

If we can get these sugars out of biomass, in a cost effective manner, they can be fermented to produce the liquid biofuels we need to replace petrol

Professor Simon McQueen-Mason

Scientists at the University of York believe that potent digestive enzymes that the gribble produces to convert wood into the sugars they live on, could be harnessed as a crucial component in making liquid biofuels.

Researchers in CNAP – the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products in the University’s Department of Biology – are part of the UK’s biggest ever public investment in bioenergy research launched today (27 January). The £27 million BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre aims to provide the science that could help to replace the petrol in our cars with fuels derived from plants through a variety of research projects.

The York project, headed by Professor Simon McQueen-Mason, is working with marine biologists at Portsmouth University to identify the enzymes in the gribble’s digestive tract that are the most efficient in breaking down wood.

Professor McQueen-Mason said: "Producing sugar from non-food biomass, such as wood or straw, in a sustainable way is one of the biggest challenges we face. The problem is that the sugars that we need to use are tied up in the stems of plants, in complex polysaccharides of the cell walls. If we can get these sugars out of biomass, in a cost effective manner, they can be fermented to produce the liquid biofuels we need to replace petrol.

"Most animals that consume wood have digestive tracts packed with microbes that help to digest the cell wall polymers, but the gribble’s is sterile, so it must produce all the enzymes needed to break down the wood itself. We have done extensive DNA sequencing of the genes expressed in its gut, and we have detected cellulases never seen in animals before. We want to see if it’s possible to adapt the gribble digestive enzymes for industrial purposes."

Minister of State for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson, said: "Investing £27 million in this new centre involves the single biggest UK public investment in bioenergy research. The centre is exactly the sort of initiative this country needs to lead the way in transforming the exciting potential of sustainable biofuels into a widespread technology that can replace fossil fuels. The expertise and resources of the University of York makes it well placed to make a valuable contribution to the new BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre and help to make sustainable, environmentally-friendly bioenergy a reality."

The BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre is focussed on projects in six research hubs of academic and industrial partners, based the Universities of Cambridge, Dundee, Nottingham and York and Rothamsted Research and two at the University of Nottingham. Another 7 universities and institutes are involved and 15 industrial partners across the hubs are contributing around £7M of the funding.

The Centre aims to make sustainable bioenergy a practical solution by improving not only the yield and quality of non-food biomass and the processes used to convert this into biofuels but ensuring that the whole system is economically and socially viable.

BBSRC Chief Executive, Prof Douglas Kell, said: "The UK has a world leading research base in plant and microbial science. The BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre draws together some of these world beating scientists in order to help develop technology and understanding to support the sustainable bioenergy sector.

"By working closely with industrial partners the Centre’s scientists will be able to quickly translate their progress into practical solutions to all our benefit – and ultimately, by supporting the sustainable bioenergy sector, help to create thousands of new ‘green collar’ jobs in the UK."


Notes to editors:

  • More information on the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre at
  • The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.
  • 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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