Green Operations

NASA Studies Cellulose for Biofuel Production

August 25, 2009

MOFFETT FIELD, CA --- Scientists at NASA Ames Research Center in California are working on a method to transform the wasted parts of plants into fuel and food, using what is called bionanotechnology. 

Of course, there's a longstanding tradition of transferring NASA technical advances to the public sector and finding commercial applications. For example, NASA aerodynamics research eventually prompted changes in how commercial trucks are designed today. NASA's involvement in biofuel research may be motivated by fuel needs for long-term missions on Mars or other extraterrestrial environments, but ultimately that same research may help develop fuels that can be used by everyday vehicles right here on Earth. 

The NASA research team is assembling enzyme structures with multiple functions, modeled after a natural enzyme complex that breaks down inedible plant material into usable sugars. 

"Turning waste into resources is our purpose," said Chad Paavola, a research scientist at Ames. "We're working on a process that converts cellulose into sugar. Cellulose is a common substance found in all plants, including wheat straw, corn stalks and woody material. Its sugar can be converted into other resources, such as food, fuels or chemicals." 

Cellulose is an attractive raw material for producing sugar because of its abundance. However, it is difficult to access the sugar in cellulose because it is arranged in structures called polymers that are difficult to break down. In nature, enzyme complexes, known as cellulosomes, are among the most effective ways to convert cellulose into useable sugars. 

To better understand how cellulosomes work and to mimic their function, the team of NASA scientists built enzyme complexes modeled after natural cellulosomes, using protein parts from different microbes. 

By placing the microbes' DNA sequences, or genetic blueprints, for these component parts into a common laboratory bacterium, the scientists were able to create a protein structure to act as a scaffold to attach enzymes with different functions. This allowed the enzymes to work together more efficiently. In this arrangement, the enzymes produce significantly more sugar from cellulose than the same enzymes produce when they are not attached to the scaffold. 

The NASA scientists reached a milestone demonstrating the feasibility of duplicating nature by building multi-enzyme arrays on a self-assembling scaffold of their own design. 

"This is an exciting result," said Jonathan Trent, an astrobiologist at NASA Ames. "We succeeded in assembling a complex nano-scale structure with diverse components that self-assembles and serves a useful purpose. It's like a Swiss army knife of enzymes. This brings us a small step closer to functional nano-engineering."

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