Growing concerns about carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and fuel supply are encouraging Europeans to focus on biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels, which are non-renewable resources. The DISCO ('Targeted discovery of novel cellulases and hemicellulases and their reaction mechanism for hydrolysis of lignocellulosic biomass') project, which has clinched almost EUR 3 million in financial support to find new ways of converting renewable materials into biofuels, is helping this effort. The project is funded under the 'Food, agriculture and fisheries, and biotechnology' Theme of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Industries generate a lot of waste material that can be used in renewable energy, and experts have identified wheat bran, wheat straw and spruce chips as being key materials. Lignocellulose, which is a combination of lignin and cellulose that strengthens woody plant cells, helps make plants and trees durable. But more research is needed to determine how lignocellulosic materials can be used for biofuel production. In a statement, the Institute of Food Research said the molecular nature of lignocelluloses makes it resistant to the actions of microorganisms that could otherwise convert it to simple sugar molecules required for biofuel production. Enter the DISCO project, which is being led by the Technical Research Centre (VTT) of Finland. Launched in 2008, DISCO is looking for microorganisms that could degrade the lignocellulosic material. What we do know is that the energy of microorganisms is triggered by the breakdown of nature's complex molecules, which in turn are converted into simpler sugars and then energy. The DISCO partners are producing bioethanol from various sources including waste bran from milling, wheat straw from farming and spruce chips from paper-making. The consortium, which comprises experts from research institutes, universities and industry, is finding new enzymes that could facilitate the production process. The researchers hope to develop better and cheaper cellulosic and hemicellulosic enzyme tools for improved hydrolysis of pre-treated lignocellulosic biomass in saccharification and fermentation (SSF) conditions for the production of bioethanol. In a nutshell, the team will determine which microorganisms are able to break down the resistant lignocelluloses material. The DISCO partners are using several libraries of microorganisms, one of which is found at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BUTE) in Hungary, a project partner. BUTE's library consists of more than 4,000 diverse microorganisms garnered from various sources. The libraries are helping the team identify promising candidates for lignocellulosic enzyme activity. Some of these candidates are already being characterised in the laboratories of other DISCO members. 'We're looking to nature to find answers to the problem of efficiently generating next-generation biofuels from renewable sources, in this case from abundant waste materials from farming and industry,' explained VTT's Dr Kristiina Kruus, who is heading the study. 'That answer could literally be lying in the soil, in an undiscovered and uncharacterised microorganism.' The four-year project will deliver a cocktail of enzymes capable of breaking down the complex lignocellose for bioethanol production. The DISCO partners are from Estonia, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia and the UK.
Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Netherlands, Russia, Sweden