Horse race

Just horsing around (Day 120)

Horse race
Horse fungus may help produce biofuel. Photo credit – Dziurek |

You may have noticed that the IChemE Global Award finals are just around the corner.

It’s an anxious wait for the 70 or so shortlisted finalists until 6 November 2014. However, I hope to share with you some of their work and achievements in the coming weeks on this blog.

Some of you may have noticed that this year’s venue is Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire, UK.

They’ve been racing at Cheltenham since 1815 and today attracts huge crowds from all over the world for events like the Cheltenham Festival. It also has some fantastic facilities, which is why we’ll be there on 6 November with 500 guests.

But today’s blog illustrates that the ubiquitous chemical engineer operates even in the equine world – a chemical engineer has found fungi in the intestinal tracts and faeces of horses which could help produce biofuels from non-food plants.

The chemical engineer is Professor Michelle O’Malley from the University of California Santa Barabara (UCSB).

Chemical engineer Michelle O'Malley
Chemical engineer, Professor Michelle O’Malley. Photo credit: Sonia Fernandez, UCSB

Michelle explains her achievement: “Nature has made it very difficult and expensive to access the cellulose in plants.

“Additionally, we need to find the best enzyme mixture to convert that cellulose into sugar.

“We have discovered a fungus from the digestive tract of a horse that addresses both issues — it thrives on lignin-rich plants and converts these materials into sugars for the animal.

“It is a potential treasure trove of enzymes for solving this problem and reducing the cost of biofuels.”

Cellulose is an energy-rich material that can be broken down into sugars for fermentation into alcohol for fuel. Crops like corn, wheat, and sugarcane are typically used in the production of bioalcohols like ethanol, because the cellulose in these energy crops is more readily accessible – surrounded by less of a tough biopolymer called lignin that is found in plant cell walls.

A drawback to fuel production from these energy crops is that they compete for space with crops grown for food. However, using non-food plants, or the parts of food plants with denser lignin networks for fuels is costly and energy-consuming.

The fungi found by Michelle, which exist in the digestive systems of large herbivores like horses and cows, grow invasively into the plant material and secrete enzymes that break down cellulose into sugar.

By genetically engineering these lignin-loving fungi into yeasts, the researchers believe it is possible to access and break down the cellulose trapped in non-food plants and convert it into biofuel using already proven production technology.

It’s a very interesting development and one that may lessen the criticism directed at biofuels. Another great example of why Chemical Engineering Matters.


If you would like to attend the IChemE Global Awards 2014, please visit our website.

One thought on “Just horsing around (Day 120)”

  1. Mother Nature has a solution for many problems. Let’s face it she has had plenty of time to develop them!

    We now need to be pushing governments into funding the development of such discoveries so that they can be fastracked.


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