Having the enzymes next to each other on the genome is convenient for scientists who are working on engineering microbes that can degrade both cellulose and hemicellulose. The cluster could be designed as a cassette and put into a microbe that normally degrades only cellulose.

Moreover, being next to each other allows them to work efficiently. “You have a set of enzymes that have co-evolved,” Cann explained. “If they have co-evolved over millions of years, it means they have been fine-tuned to work together.”

Another advantage of Caldanaerobius polysaccharolyticus is that it is a thermophilic bacterium, and its enzymes are resistant to temperatures as high as 70 degrees Celsius. Biofuel fermentation is usually done at 37 degrees Celsius, a temperature at which most microbes can survive. This means that the material in the fermentation vats is easily contaminated.

The next step for Cann and his collaborators is to develop techniques for transferring this gene cluster, which is quite large, into microbes.

The research was recently published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry and is available at http://www.jbc.org/content/287/42/34946.full?sid=3f2242e5-c278-4d3e-b16c-1c6f79b01f4b. Yejun Han, Vinayak Agarwal, Dylan Dodd, Jason Kim, Brian Bae, and Satish K. Nair are co-authors.

The Energy Biosciences Institute is a four-partner research collaboration that includes the University of Illinois, the University of California at Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and BP, the energy company that funds the work. It is dedicated to applying the biological sciences to the challenges of producing sustainable, renewable energy for the world.