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Searching the mangrove and the desert for a native biofuel

Humankind has much to learn from nature. Even the simplest of organisms are as complex and potentially useful in their own way as the latest computer chip. And the more we learn, the more puzzles there are.

Humankind has much to learn from nature. Even the simplest of organisms are as complex and potentially useful in their own way as the latest computer chip. And the more we learn, the more puzzles there are.

Figuring out the natural processes at work in those organisms could turn out to be a much easier way of doing some things than inventing our own methods from scratch.

This is especially true for biofuel production. As fossil fuels continue to play havoc with our environment, the need to secure renewable and environmentally friendly energy sources is only growing.

The UAE, recognising the potential of biofuel, is now looking to discover its own plant-based sources of energy. And it is trying to mitigate some of the challenges posed by the first generation of biofuels - namely agricultural land use.

Researchers at the Masdar Insititue are scouring the UAE's deserts, coasts, marshes, mangroves and salt flats for plants that contain a good amount of sugar or oil that can be turned into fuel and which thrive in its extreme environment.

A number of species of algae with good biofuel potential have already been found. But extracting their energy is not always easy. Unlocking the energy from cellulose - a subtance found in plant cell walls that can be converted into sugar - is not always simple, affordable or efficient.

The cellulose in many plants is not able to withstand the extreme conditions of the biorefining process, making extraction costly and inefficient. So we are looking for better ways to produce renewable energy from plant species.

And we may have found just that lurking in roots of the UAE's mangrove trees, which are are home to a host of microbes that can help break down cellulose into sugar.

These microbes consume the plant waste that falls into the water, extracting for their own use the plant the sugars they need to survive. And because the environment in which mangroves thrive is hot, saline, and intense, the microbes that can survive there may be more able to withstand the biorefining process.

The challenge is finding the ideal microbe - or, more likely, the microbe community - for this job, and extracting the enzyme it produces.

Our team is screening mangrove root sediments in the UAE for novel enzymes to break down cellulose waste. This process will be aided by the rapidly developing field of bioinformatics.

First, we need to map the microbes' DNA, using the Masdar Institute's state-of-the-art sequencing facility. Then we can crunch that data using bioinformatics algorithms to find out why exactly one microbe community is better at breaking down cellulose than another.

That information can then be used to more efficiently search for and pinpoint the enzyme best suited for our purposes.

With this interdisciplinary research, we hope to help the UAE discover the most promising biofuel plant species, the best microbes to help refine them, and perhaps a guideline for the engineering of the ideal cellulose-refining, enzyme-producing microbe.

Additionally, the bioinformatics portion of this research, which involves student training and research, will help Abu Dhabi develop indigenous expertise. And in a field expected to be worth US$8.3billion by 2014, it could be a lucrative contribution to the UAE's knowledge economy.

 

Dr Andreas Henschel is assistant professor of computing and information science at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology

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