To move from a fossil-fuel based economy to a bioeconomy based on converting plant material into energy, researchers need to isolate the proteins involved in the process that converts woody biomass (lignocellulose) into simple sugars. Those sugars are the basic blocks required to build the advanced biofuels and biochemicals that can turn agricultural and urban waste into products and energy.
Fungi play a natural role in decomposition. They break down woody biomass, which includes limbs, tops, needles, leaves, bushes and shrubs, into sugars. That makes fungi an ideal natural laboratory where we can search for the proteins involved in this process, which we aim to harness and duplicate.
Our project will use the massive amounts of information available from genome research to identify, analyze and develop potential enzymes in fungi that we could use as catalysts to produce biofuels and other plant-based products. We will map the genome of important fungi and identify the enzymes, or proteins, they use to break down the biomass. We will build a database of the genes and genomes of various types of fungi, as well as the enzyme families and the properties and applications for those proteins. We will clone and express these proteins in the large volumes needed for industrial use. We will also modify promising enzymes to adapt their properties to the requirements of industrial settings. We will use them to develop new fuels, chemicals and novel processes for pulp and paper manufacturing and the production of cattle feed. We will also establish new standards to measure the sustainability of converting woody biomass to biofuels and other products. Finally, we will develop effective communications strategies to engage the Canadian public in a conversation about issues associated with using biomass as a key source of chemicals and fuels in the future.
Once we have developed new enzymes, they will become the cornerstones for the development of large-scale industrial biorefineries that process biomass into biofuels and biochemicals. We also plan to develop enzyme supplements to use in cattle feed, reducing the amount of grain necessary to ensure a nutritious feed product. That development would stabilize the cost of feed for farmers and could cut food costs overall. The enzymes we develop will also help the pulp and paper industry reduce the amount of energy it requires and the pollution the pulping process generates.
Integrated GE3LS Research: Genozymes GE3LS Project: A Methodological Approach to Environmental Impacts and Public Engagement
GE3LS Project Leader: David Secko, Concordia University
The goal of this genomic research is to identify, analyze and develop potential enzymes in fungi that can be used to convert plant material into biofuels, biochemicals and other products for industrial use. The project is designed to produce significant benefits for Canada, and thereby raises several important questions related to the environment, government policy and public perception, among other broad areas of GE3LS research.
For example, currently little relevant data is available to assess the environmental impact and potential sustainability of such conversions because no commercial-scale cellulose-basedoperation yet exists in Canada. This is because existing first generation bioconversion processes and biofuels production facilities in Canada are relatively novel and have not yet been subject to detailed scientific scrutiny for their overall environmental impacts and sustainability implications. Furthermore, Canadians have not yet had a broad public dialogue on the policy issues and societal trade-offs related to the conversion of plant material into biofuels and biochemicals. This is despite past experiences that have shown that public perception will have an important influence on the assessment of new genomic technologies.
We will address these questions in two ways. First, we will develop a general framework to assess the environmental sustainability of genomics-based methods of converting plant material into biofuel. This work will draw upon environmental experiences and the application of genomics based tools in more “mature” biofuels jurisdictions from around the world. The results from this analysis will form the scientific foundation and basis for development of protocols to assist our own scientists in making informed decisions about the environmental implications of their research and will guide future decisions for reducing adverse environmental impacts and ensuring sustainability of resources in the long term.
Second, we will investigate effective communication and engagement strategies related to the results of our genomics project. This will involve the development and testing of various models of science journalism. We will develop guides to assist science journalists in communicating genomics-based innovations. Finally, an important part of our studies will be to engage the public in informed discussion of our genomics-project results.