Pony poo may hold the secret to more efficient biofuel production

We can buy a bag of pony poo for a dollar or so at the gates of horse-owners. Maybe they are selling it too cheaply.

In their efforts to use corn stalks, grass and other non-food plants to make biofuels, scientists have found a potential treasure-trove of candidate enzymes in fungi in the faeces and intestinal tracts of horses.

These enzymes are the key to the economical production of biofuels from non-food plant material.

The findings were reported to the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans.

ScienceDaily gives an account (here) of what has been found.

Michelle A. O’Malley, Ph.D., explained that cellulose is the raw material for making biofuels from non-food plant materials.

But cellulose is sealed away inside a tough network of lignin within the cell walls of plants. To produce biofuels from these materials, lignin must be removed through an expensive pretreatment process.

A collection of enzymes then breaks cellulose down into sugars.

Finally, in a process likened to the production of beer or wine, the sugars become food for microbes to ferment into alcohol for fuel, ingredients for plastics and other materials.

“Nature has made it very difficult and expensive to access the cellulose in plants. Additionally, we need to find the best enzyme mixture to convert that cellulose into sugar,” O’Malley said. “We have discovered a fungus from the digestive tract of a horse that addresses both issues — it thrives on lignin-rich plants and converts these materials into sugars for the animal. It is a potential treasure trove of enzymes for solving this problem and reducing the cost of biofuels.”

Scientists have previously looked for these enzymes in the digestive tracts of large herbivores like cows and horses, which can digest lignin-rich grasses, but their focus has been mainly on enzymes in bacteria, rather than fungi, which include yeasts and molds.

O’Malley’s research group at the University of California, Santa Barbara, collaborated with researchers at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

They worked with a gut fungus isolated from horse faeces and identified all the genetic material that the fungus uses to manufacture enzymes and other proteins.

Almost two years ago, ScienceDaily reported (here) on the potential of panda poo.

It was found to contain bacteria with potent effects in breaking down plant material in the way needed to tap biomass as a major new source of “biofuels” produced not from corn and other food sources, but from grass, wood chips and crop wastes.

Those results were reported by scientists to the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.

Horse poo looks more promising than panda poo for any NZ scientists who want to take this work further.


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