A new research technique promises to greatly speed up the search for microbes that can ferment cellulosic sugars under the harsh conditions of biofuels production, according to researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI).

A critical factor in trying to produce cellulosic biofuels effectively will be finding or developing microbes that will ferment complex sugars. Also, those microbes must be able to withstand the high temperatures and other grueling conditions of fuel production and not become inhibited by the fuel that is being produced. JBEI researchers believe they have a potential candidate.

“Our results show that the recently discovered extremophile – the bacterium Geobacillus thermoglucosidasius – which thrives in the high temperatures and pressures of petroleum reservoirs, can ferment the major C5 and C6 sugars (e.g., xylose and glucose) in cellulosic biomass and can tolerate high concentrations of ethanol,” says Jay Keasling. He’s CEO of JBEI and a world authority on synthetic biology who led the study. “These capabilities make Geobacillus thermoglucosidasius an ideal microbe for improved production of bio-ethanol and other more advanced biofuels.”

“Using our methodology, one can rapidly analyze whether a bacterium is suitable as a biofuels host at an extremely fast time frame as compared to the traditional methods,” says Rajat Sapra, a biochemist with Sandia National Laboratories who directs the enzyme optimization program at JBEI. “This is especially important now that we are discovering new and novel bacteria at a pace much, much faster than can be analyzed using the classical techniques. Our isotopomer-based approach for studying cellular metabolisms will not only enable us to identify the best and most promising hosts, but will also provide guidelines for engineering new metabolic pathways that promote biofuel production as well as other environmental and industrial applications.”

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