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Student Researcher Seeks Cleaner Biofuels

CALS student researcher Maura Cuebas

Plant-based fuels offer particular promise for reducing the world’s dependence on non-renewable petroleum deposits for energy.

But turning plant matter into fuel isn’t easy, and the energy costs for doing so can be high.

Amy Grunden’s lab in CALS’ Department of Plant and Microbial Biology has found a few bacteria that may hold potential – and doctoral student Mara Cuebas-Irizarry is taking the research further. She’s searching for ways to use the bacteria to break down lignin, a component of plant cell walls that gives plants strength and rigidity and resists degradation.

“There’s a lot of information about fungi, for example, and how we can use fungi to degrade lignin,” she says. “Bacteria, though, are easier to work with. So we are using both genetic and growth studies to screen bacteria that can make enzymes that degrade the compound. We are trying to understand how they break down and grow on lignin and identify which enzymes they are producing that help with this process.”

Right now, Cuebas is studying a promising bacterium the lab found in carpenter bees as well as one that was isolated from black liquor, a byproduct of the paper-making process.

“We are trying to understand how they grow and to do a lot of physiological studies to see if we’ll be able to identify the enzymes that the microbes use to grow on lignin,” she says.