Why a curious crustacean could hold secret to making renewable energy from wood

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Scientists studying the digestive system of a curious wood-eating crustacean discovered it may hold the key to sustainably converting wood into low carbon biofuel.

Gribble are small marine invertebrates that have evolved to perform an important ecological role eating the abundant supplies of wood washed into the sea from river estuaries.

They can also be something of a marine menace, consuming the wood of boats and piers and causing considerable damage in the process. Until now, the question of how gribble break through ‘lignin’, the highly resistant coating that wraps around the sugar polymers that compose wood, has been a mystery.

A team of scientists, led by the University of York and funded by BBSRC, studied the hind gut of gribble and discovered that ‘hemocyanins’, the same proteins that make the blood of invertebrates blue, are crucial to their ability to extract sugars from wood.

The discovery brings researchers a step closer to identifying cheaper and more sustainable tools for converting wood into low carbon fuel, a promising alternative to fossil fuels like coal and oil.

Hemocyanins are a group of proteins better known for their role in transporting oxygen in invertebrates in a similar way to haemoglobin in animals. While haemoglobin binds oxygen through its association with iron atoms, giving blood its red colour, hemocyanins do this with copper atoms producing a blue colour.

Oxygen is a highly reactive chemical, and gribble have harnessed the oxidative capabilities of hemocyanins to attack the lignin bonds that hold the wood together.

The research involved teams from the Universities of York, Portsmouth, Cambridge and Sao Paulo and revealed that treating wood with hemocyanins enables more than double the amount of sugar to be released; the same amount that can be released with expensive and energy consuming thermochemical pre-treatments currently used in industry.

Last updated: 11 March 2021

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