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Targeting Cellulose Bottleneck
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Targeting Cellulose Bottleneck

July 12, 2010
Scientists used a San Diego Supercomputing Center (SDSC) supercomputer to help improve cellulose conversion to ethanol. Their virtual molecules show how the enzyme complex may change shape to straddle a broken cellulose chain, gaining a crucial foothold to digest cellulose into sugar molecules, which can then be fermented into ethanol. More about this Image The human process of producing ethanol from cellulose is slow and expensive. The central bottleneck is the sluggish rate at which the cellulose enzyme complex breaks down tightly bound cellulose into sugars, that are then fermented into ethanol.

Now, a team of scientists has conducted molecular simulations at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), based at the University of California, San Diego, to help unlock the cellulose bottleneck using virtual molecules. The team has discovered key steps in the intricate process in which the enzyme acts as a molecular machine, attaching to bundles of cellulose, pulling up a single strand of sugar, and putting it onto a molecular conveyor belt, where it is chopped into smaller sugar pieces.

By learning how the cellulase enzyme complex breaks down cellulose, scientists can develop protein engineering strategies in order to speed up this key reaction. According to Mike Cleary, who coordinated SDSC's role in the project, this is important in making ethanol from plant biomass a realistic "carbon neutral" alternative to the fossil petroleum used today for transportation fuels.

To learn more about this research, see the UCSD news story Meeting the Ethanol Challenge: Scientists Use Supercomputer to Target Cellulose Bottleneck. [Research partially funded by the Department of Energy's Biomass Program and the National Science Foundation.] (Date of Image: 2007)