Can wood be a sustainable, cost-effective, environmentally-friendly biofuel? Researchers found fungal enzymes break it down
08/20/2018 / By Janine Acero / Comments
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Can wood be a sustainable, cost-effective, environmentally-friendly biofuel? Researchers found fungal enzymes break it down

Researchers from the University of York discovered that enzymes found in fungi are capable of breaking down a certain main component of wood, as reported in a study published in the journal Nature Chemical Biology.

In ecosystems, fungi play a significant role in breaking down wood within the carbon cycle, releasing nutrients back into the soil. This activity inspired the research team to look further into the mechanisms that allow this decomposition process to take place.

In the study, titled Lytic xylan oxidases from wood-decay fungi unlock biomass degradation, the team described a set of fungal enzymes that can effectively break down one of the main components of wood, after examining two members of the white-rot fungus species (Pycnoporus coccineus). The species were found to substantially increase the efficiency of wood saccharification – the process of breaking a complex carbohydrate such as starch into simple sugars “through oxidative cleavage of highly refractory xylan-coated cellulose fibers.” This means that the fungus species could effectively break down xylans, which are carbohydrate molecules commonly found in wood biomass that are resistant to degradation. This process could potentially be used to convert wood biomass into valuable commodities such as biofuel.

While wood could be a sustainable, cost-effective and environmentally-friendly biofuel, the conversion of wood into fuels and products tends to be expensive and energy-consuming due to current wood biorefineries using pre-treatment processes such as high pressure and steam, or chemical pre-treatments. The findings may bring opportunities to turn this around by using the fungal enzymes’ decomposing methods.


The discovery of the enzyme activity advances the knowledge on the degradation of wood biomass in nature, according to the researchers, and may even be a key factor in developing improved enzyme cocktails for biorefinery applications.

“This discovery unlocks the key scientific challenge of how biorefineries can convert wood into biofuel in an environmental and cost-effective way, bringing us a step closer to a sustainable 21st Century,” said the researchers.

According to a blog post on, a major challenge in producing biofuel from wood is confusion about which types of wood can be used. The blog noted that burning virgin timber is “less environmentally and economically effective,” and that only wood that would otherwise go into landfills should be burned for fuel.

The blog added: “Fears about deforestation and the impact using this new fuel could have on plants and animals are often cited by the anti-biomass groups.” (Related: Demand For Food and Fuel Destroys Forests.)

Fast facts on biofuel

Biofuel is fuel that is produced directly or indirectly from organic material (biomass) including plant materials and animal waste – i.e., renewable resources – as opposed to geological processes such as those involved in the formation of fossil fuel like coal and petroleum, which contain prehistoric biological matter.

Some types of biofuel include:

  • Ethanol – A flammable and renewable liquid produced by the fermentation of grain or from advanced technology such as agricultural waste, wood chips and waste paper.
  • Biodiesel – Produced through a combination of alcohol with recycled cooking grease, animal fat, or vegetable oil. Biodiesel is a highly combustible liquid that burns readily upon mixing with petroleum-based diesel fuel. It can be used as a renewable alternative for diesel engines, but has been shown to produce harmful emissions like carbon monoxide.
  • Biobutanol – It is an isobutanol derived from algae or bacteria just like biodiesel, or by fermentation of biomass like ethanol. Biobutanol can be directly used in standard gasoline engines without any modifications. Biobutanol reduces any loss in fuel mileage due to its high octane levels.

Learn more about the kinds of energy produced from renewable resources at

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