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Using fungi to produce renewable energy

Date: 11.6.2018 

Ebru Alazi 'hacked' an enzyme-producing system in the fungus Aspergillus niger in order to produce renewable energy more easily. She manipulated the fungus, making it produce more pectinases: enzymes mainly used in the food industry and in the production of renewable energy, such as biofuels. 
Kredit: Leiden University.

Fungi such as Aspergillus niger feed from plants in order to grow. Pectin is a polysaccharide – a long chain of sugars – that is part of the plant cell wall and serves as food for fungi. When A. niger senses pectin, it produces pectinase enzymes. These enzymes can break down pectin into smaller parts, so the fungus can transport them into the cell and make energy of them.

This was already known, but Alazi found out what mechanism lies beneath this process. "What I liked about my research is that it was both fundamental and applied. First I gained fundamental knowledge on how the pectinase production system in A. niger works, and then I applied this knowledge to hack the system and boost the pectinase production."

Alazi first found the activator GaaR, a protein that activates the expression of the genes that encode pectinases. Roughly said, when A. niger senses pectin, GaaR is activated. Furthermore, she found the repressor GaaX. When the fungus doesn't sense pectin in its environment, the repressor GaaX is activated. GaaX then disables the activator GaaR and the pectinase production is stopped. The third component she found was the inducer molecule that causes abundant pectinase production: 2-keto-3-deoxy-L-galactonate, a catabolic product of pectin.




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