University researchers find human gut may lead to new wave of bioenergy

By Tea Lojanica

University researchers have found that microbes inside the human gut may be the foundation behind a new generation of energy production at an industrial level. This provided a new approach to previous studies of digestion enzymes found in cow intestines, one of the best environments where enzymes that release sugars from plants are found, according to the researchers.

These bacterial microbes were found in the human large intestines, which break down cell wall fibers and convert them into simple sugars at a more efficient rate than cow microbes, said Isaac Cann, professor in Microbiology and lead researcher of the study.

Cann was the first to use a biochemical approach to support the hypothesis, and the group’s findings were published in the scientific journal, “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

“Our investigations point to the human gut as a rich source of the enzymes required to break down the complex polysaccharides in plants into simple sugars, glucose and xylose, for fermentation to biofuels,” Cann said in an email.

The simple sugars can then be used as feed for yeast to create ethanol and other liquid fuels.

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    Cann said the fuel produced will provide a more sustainable energy source than limited fossil fuels.

    The current use of living organisms as an energy source on a large scale is called biomass. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, wood is currently the leading biomass energy resource . Burning wood releases carbon dioxide, but the implementation of biofuel from microbes releases no carbon dioxide, which is more beneficial for the environment.

    “These findings ultimately may have a major impact on the economic and efficient use of biomass for the production of advanced biofuels,” said Hans Blaschek, director of the University’s Center for Advanced BioEnergy Research in an email. “If inexpensive biomass can be used as a starting feedstock, this would ultimately have an impact on sustainability of the entire value chain by making the process more economical and independent of the food supply.”

    Cann said it was important to remember that all researchers need is the DNA of the enzymes. Many can be found in human feces then replicated in the laboratory on a massive scale, rather than extracted directly from humans.

    Cann’s studies are still in process, but the findings continue to change the approach toward biofuel and energy in the scientific field. 

    “We need to make these enzymes in large quantities at very cheap cost or find extremely active enzymes to drive down the cost of making a gallon of cellulosic biofuel,” he said. “Once we accomplish these goals, we will see the industry based on cellulosic biofuels expand.”

    Tea can be reached at [email protected].