Enzyme in insect could be used for better biofuel

Thermobia domestica, or Firebrat (Wikimedia Commons/David R. Madison)
Thermobia domestica, or Firebrat (Wikimedia Commons/David R. Madison)

University of York researchers have discovered another source for an enzyme that might be able to improve cellulose digestion and produce biofuels more efficiently.

The paper shows that the enzymes that insects called firebrats (which are closely related to silverfish) use to digest cellulose could be applied to industrial processes, including ‘the production of sustainable low carbon fuels to cut greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuel use’ according to a release from the university.

“Firebrats belong to one of the most primitive groups of insects; they appeared on land during the Devonian Period, some 420 million years ago. Despite this long evolutionary history, however, these insects have been generally overlooked by scientists,” said Professor Simon McQueen Mason, director of the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at the University of York.

“Cellulose forms the fibres that give the cell walls of plants their strength and has a high degree of structural order, making it solid and tough.”

Dr Federico Sabbadin from the University of York’s Department of Biology, said in the same release: “Inside their gut the firebrats had a group of uncharacterised proteins that make up 20% of their carbohydrate digestive enzymes.

“On further inspection, these proteins proved to be a new class of enzyme, called lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases (LPMOs), which attack crystalline polysaccharides. Our study revealed that these enzymes are used by firebrats to greatly increase the rate of cellulose digestion.”

Professor Mason added that interfering with the enzyme proved lethal for the insects, opening a door to possible methods of pest control for disease vectors like mosquitoes and crop-destorying locusts.

The article, called ‘An ancient family of lytic polysaccharidemonooxygenases with roles in arthropoddevelopment and biomass digestion’ was published in Nature Communications 22 February 2018.

Thermobia domestica, or Firebrat (Wikimedia Commons/David R. Madison)