The world’s growing energy demands and the threat of global warming have created the need to develop renewable, carbon-neutral alternatives to fossil fuels. These renewable resources must be abundant to meet the immense global demand -- gasoline consumption in the U.S. alone is about 140 billion gallons a year. To produce large amounts of alternative fuels, researchers are developing methods to convert plant material into transportation fuels. The process involves releasing sugars locked up in plant cellulose using organisms engineered to convert it to cellulosic biofuels.
The iCLEM research group aids in this effort by identifying organisms that can efficiently break down plant cellulose using cellulase enzymes. The student researchers take samples of soil from compost piles and other places where cellulose-eating microbes are abundant and active. The microbes are grown in the lab, then screened to find the ones that have the most efficient cellulase enzymes. Using high-tech molecular biology techniques, the iCLEM team identifies the organisms and genes that produce the most promising cellulases for potential use in large-scale biomass processing, an essential part of cellulosic biofuel production.
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