Wood! Wood! Wood…This is maybe one of the most material that humankind may have learn to craft, and few materials showed such versability than wood. What do we do with wood? We use it first to keep us safe from weather inclements, we used it for a long time to heat ourselves and our food (and accessory to keep predators at large…), we use it for our furnitures and even for writing our thoughts and spread the information.
Wood is such a magic material and the study of wood is also a science by itself. Peter, one of my teaching fellow had built a very nice lecture on wood anatomy and taxonomy and was able to bring it to life.
One thing we were discussing is that the lignin that give the robustness to wood is also a very stable polymer that is very hard to breakdown chemically, making the use of wood as biofuel very limited.
But this article based on a recent publication in PNAS show how synthetic biology may be an helping hand in degrading another polymer present in plants: cellulose.
Cellulose and starch are very similar chemicals, a brick of glucose repeats. One thing that everyone knows is that glucose is a main fuel for our body and also a very good storage form (glycogen or fat). We can eat starch but why cannot we eat grass? It is all about a chemical bond, the the glycoside bond. Starch have an alpha conformation bond, cellulose has a beta conformation bond. One way that certain mammals (cows, sheeps…) dealt with evolution was to host some symbionts that would degrade these beta bonds and thus make the cellulose.
If we can have this process operated by biological engineering, that would be a good source not only for food as mentioned in the article but also as a possible ethanol production to complement our car fuel, thus redirecting back some of our crops from fuel production to food production.
We can also think about complementing the protein-rich diet obtained from insects and get a sort of a healthy “soylent green” that may have the source of two essential nutrients: protein and carbohydrates.