New method to break down lignin with enzymes devised by researchers

A group of researchers has discovered a new family of enzymes that could be very useful for converting plant-based waste into materials that can be used to create materials of different nature. The research team, which had already engineered an enzyme to “digest” plastics last year, is headed by Jen Dubois of Montana State University, by Gregg Beckham of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Ken Houk of the University of California, Los Angeles, and by John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth.

For years, scientists have been trying to “break down” lignin, a component found in plants, one of the most widespread biopolymers on Earth together with cellulose. Currently lignin can be broken down only by a few fungi and bacteria but there are many attempts made in the laboratory to find a method to break it down in order to extract the chemicals that it can potentially offer.

The researchers in this case, for the breakdown of lignin, used a natural enzyme and they engineered it in the laboratory. Unlike other enzymes used in other processes for the breakdown of lignin, in this case the modified enzyme adapts to a greater number of constituent elements at the base of the lignin itself. These results, according to the researchers, could represent an important step for a better, more economical and more efficient realization of new materials such as nylon, bioplastics and carbon fiber.

The work of the research group is certainly not finished here, as John McGeehan specifies: “Now we have proof of the principle that we can successfully engineer this class of enzymes to tackle some of the most challenging lignin-based molecules and we will continue to develop biological tools able to convert waste into precious and sustainable materials.”