A single-celled microbe that shares properties with both animals and plants has the ability to thrive on cellulose as a source of energy, reports research published in this week’s Nature Communications. The organism could potentially be used to generate biofuel from waste paper with the aid of light.
Up to now, the ability to degrade difficult to digest plant matter was thought to be restricted to organisms that are unable to use sunlight as an energy source. Olaf Kruse and his colleagues discovered that the photosynthetic green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii can secrete enzymes that digest cellulose into smaller breakdown products, which are then imported into the cells and converted into a source of energy for growth. A great deal of effort is currently focussed on generating both hydrogen and oil-based biofuels from algae, and Chlamydomonas could now find a new role as a catalyst to convert plant waste into biofuel with greater efficiency than was previously possible.