Researchers discover furan-degrading bacterium

By Lisa Gibson
Posted March 17, 2010, at 12:15 p.m. CST

Researchers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have discovered that the bacterium Cupriavidus basilensis breaks down furans and other harmful byproducts generated when sugars are released from wood. The discovery holds the potential to remove harmful compounds during the production of second-generation chemicals and fuels from waste wood, avoiding the current expensive and environmentally unfriendly production methods.

Cupriavidus basilensis completely metabolizes the furans, which can hinder fermentation, and leaves the valuable sugars untouched, according to the University. Assisted by supervisors Han de Winde, professor of Industrial Microbiology, and Harald Ruijssenaars, senior scientist at Bird Engineering, researchers Frank Koopman and Nick Wierckx unlocked the components of the entire degradation process in the bacterium, identifying the genes and enzymes involved.

The initial discovery of the bacterium's capabilities, however, was unexpected. "As often in this type of research, there's quite some serendipity at stake here," said supervisor Han de Winde, professor and head of the university's Department of Biotechnology. "We were indeed targeting microbial pathways for lignocelluloses (hydrolysates) degradation, however, finding this extraordinary bug yielding full-blown and new HMF/furfural (Hydroxymethylfurfural) utilization pathway was not our immediate expectation."

In addition, the team was successful in incorporating the degradation process into a bacterium Pseudomonas putida with common industrial biotechnological uses. Their work was published March 2 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Although still in early days, transferring the detoxification ability to bacteria (or other microorganisms) that at the same time can perform other industrially relevant processes would add value and efficiency to certain biotech processes," de Winde said. "Judging from our current insight into the biochemical and molecular aspects of the HMF/furfural degradation route from Cupriavidus, this should work in other bacteria as well." He added that the team is awaiting further proof.

The research is part of the Dutch university research consortium Bio-based Sustainable Industrial Chemistry (B-BASIC), geared toward developing new concepts for sustainable production of energy and chemicals.