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Making Biofuels

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Ultimately, Arnold wants to do more than just make cheaper, more efficient enzymes for breaking down cellulose. She wants to design cellulases that can be produced by the same microörganisms that ferment sugars into biofuel. Long a goal of researchers, “superbugs” that can both metabolize cellulose and create fuel could greatly lower the cost of producing cellulosic biofuels. “If you consolidate these two steps, then you get synergies that lower the cost of the overall process,” Arnold says.

Consolidating those steps will require cellulases that work in the robust organisms used in industrial fermentation processes–such as yeast and bacteria. The cellulases will need to be stable and highly active, and they’ll have to tolerate high sugar levels and function in the presence of contaminants. Moreover, researchers will have to be able to produce the organisms in sufficient quantities. This might seem like a tall order, but over the years, Arnold has developed a number of new tools for making novel proteins. She pioneered a technique, called directed evolution, that involves creating many variations of genes that code for specific proteins. The mutated genes are inserted into microörganisms that churn out the new proteins, which are then screened for particular characteristics.

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Written by Casey McConnell

March 10, 2008 at 5:30 pm

Posted in Bioenergy

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