Normally, during the pre-treatment step of making cellulose biofuel, the temperatures used to free cellulose from lignin, another structural material, are too hot for most enzymes. So the breaking down of cellulose into simple sugars has to be done in a separate, cooler temperature step. But the heat tolerant enzyme could allow engineers to combine the two steps.
"Our hope is that this example, and examples from other organisms found in extreme environments – such as high-temperature, highly alkaline or acidic, or high salt environments – can provide cellulases that will show improved function under conditions typically found in industrial applications, including the production of biofuels," said coauthor Douglas S. Clark, UC Berkeley professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in a press release.
The microbe is from and ancient group of organisms called Archaea. The microbes are thermophilic, from the Greek root words meaning "heat-loving."
"These are the most thermophilic Archaea discovered that will grow on cellulose and the most thermophilic cellulase in any organism," Clark said. "We were surprised to find this bug in our first sample."