Posted 8 February 2021
"In a similar way to how humankind have adopted yeasts (also fungal microbes) to produce beer from cereal grains, we are investigating the possibility of harnessing the digestive tract fungi to produce biofuels, ethanol, hydrogen, methane, from cereal straws."
Research to determine how goats and other herbivore’s guts extract nutrition from plants, which could be the key to developing new biofuels, has again thrust Harper Adams University’s Michael Theodorou into the scientific spotlight – with a paper published in Nature Microbiology.
Professor Theodorou, Chair of Anaerobic Digestion and Fermentation Technology at Harper Adams, is one of the co-authors on the research paper Genomic and functional analyses of fungal and bacterial consortia that enable lignocellulose breakdown in goat gut microbiomes. The research was conceived in collaboration with chemical engineer Professor Michelle O’Malley, from University of California Santa Barbara, and her UCSB colleague David Valentine, Professor of Earth Science and Biology.
The paper covers work carried out at UCSB by post-doctoral researcher Dr Xuefeng Peng, supported by the three professors and a team of researchers.
The research reveals results from more than 400 parallel experiments, which discovered 700 previously unknown microbial genomes and thousands of new enzymes, in their bid to learn bioprocessing lessons from the goat digestive tract.
Professor Theodorou said: “Microbial populations in the digestive tract of domesticated livestock, cattle, sheep goat, are essential to the animal. They are the enablers, they ferment livestock feeding stuffs to provide the animal with nutrition and energy which is ultimately converted into milk, meat, hide and wool in our livestock farming systems.
"We chose to work with goats in our Nature publication because they can digest an extremely diverse range of quite tough plant materials. We were particularly interested to learn how different members of the microbial consortium in the goat's digestive system are able to work individually or in collaboration to digest their diets. Of particular interest to us was a unique group of fungal organisms that are extremely good at digesting tough plant materials, are killed in the presence of (oxygen in) air and live nowhere else except in the digestive tract of plant-eating mammals.
"In a similar way to how humankind have adopted yeasts (also fungal microbes) to produce beer from cereal grains, we are investigating the possibility of harnessing the digestive tract fungi to produce biofuels, ethanol, hydrogen, methane, from cereal straws.
"Our intention is to use these microbes in an industrial process, producing fuels from plants, moving us away from fossil fuels and towards a greener future.
"In achieving our goal, we cannot underplay the importance of our long-term collaboration with the UCSB, linking undisputed expertise in agricultural sciences at Harper Adams with unrivalled prowess in Chemical Engineering at UCSB.”
Professor Theodorou has worked with Professor O’Malley for more than a decade, having first taught her about anaerobic fungi in 2010, and supported the setup of her UCSB laboratory, with which he has worked ever since.
The team are no strangers to publishing ground-breaking papers. They have an increasing portfolio of published work, including a publication in Science in 2016 and, alongside the publication in Nature, 2020/21 papers in mSystems and ACS Synthetic Biology.
They have also co-published a book chapter in 2020 in Mycota, reputed to be the fungal bible.