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Biology LibreTexts

17.4C: Genomics and Biofuels

  • Page ID
  • Microbial genomics can be used to create new biofuels.


    Explain the process of creating new biofuels by using microbial genomics


    Key Points

    • Microorganisms can encode new enzymes and produce new organic compounds that can be used as biofuels.
    • Genomic analysis of the fungus Pichia will allow optimization of its use in fermenting ethanol fuels.
    • Analysis of the microbes in the hindgut of termites have found 500 genes that may be useful in enzymatic destruction of cellulose.
    • Genetic markers have been used in forensic analysis, like in 2001 when the FBI used microbial genomics to determine a specific strain of anthrax that was found in several pieces of mail.
    • Genomics is used in agriculture to develop plants with more desirable traits, such as drought and disease resistance.

    Key Terms

    • renewable resource: a natural resource such that it is replenished by natural processes at a rate comparable to its rate of consumption by humans or other users
    • biofuel: any fuel that is obtained from a renewable biological resource

    Knowledge of the genomics of microorganisms is being used to find better ways to harness biofuels from algae and cyanobacteria. The primary sources of fuel today are coal, oil, wood, and other plant products, such as ethanol. Although plants are renewable resources, there is still a need to find more alternative renewable sources of energy to meet our population ‘s energy demands. The microbial world is one of the largest resources for genes that encode new enzymes and produce new organic compounds, and it remains largely untapped.

    For microbial biomass breakdown, many candidates have already been identified. These include Clostridia species for their ability to degrade cellulose, and fungi that express genes associated with the decomposition of the most recalcitrant features of the plant cell wall, lignin, the phenolic “glue” that imbues the plant with structural integrity and pest resistance. The white rot fungus Phanerochaete chrysosporium produces unique extracellular oxidative enzymes that effectively degrade lignin by gaining access through the protective matrix surrounding the cellulose microfibrils of plant cell walls.

    Another fungus, the yeast Pichia stipitis, ferments the five-carbon “wood sugar” xylose abundant in hardwoods and agricultural harvest residue. Pichia‘s recently-sequenced genome has revealed insights into the metabolic pathways responsible for this process, guiding efforts to optimize this capability in commercial production strains. Pathway engineering promises to produce a wider variety of organisms able to ferment the full repertoire of sugars derived from cellulose and hemicellulose and tolerate higher ethanol concentrations to optimize fuel yields. For instance, the hindgut contents of nature’s own bioreactor, the termite, has yielded more than 500 genes related to the enzymatic deconstruction of cellulose and hemicellulose.


    Termites: Nature’s Bioreactors: The hindgut of the termite has yielded more than 500 genes of microbes related to the enzymatic deconstruction of cellulose.