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Microbial activities for lignin valorization

  • Project Leaders: Bill Mohn, Lindsay Eltis
  • Institutions: University of British Columbia (UBC)
  • Budget: $250000
  • Program/Competition: Sector Innovation Program
  • Genome Centre(s): Genome British Columbia
  • Fiscal Year: 2017
  • Status: Closed

SIP004: Microbial Activities for Lignin Valorization

Cloe-out summary

Pulp and paper industry is under tremendous pressure due to the precipitous decline in demand for traditional products, such as newsprint, and competition for emerging markets. However, new opportunities are also arising with increasing demand for environmentally sustainable bioproducts. These challenges and opportunities can be addressed by next generation biorefineries that convert woody biomass to renewable fuels, biochemicals, and biomaterials. For such biorefineries to succeed economically, it is essential that all major components of the woody biomass, including lignin, be converted to higher value products. Conventional biorefineries, such as pulp and paper mills, currently burn lignin to produce heat and power. One potentially powerful means of valorizing lignin involves harnessing the microorganisms that naturally degrade woody biomass to transform lignin to valuable chemicals, which was the focus of this project.

The project team discovered new microbial enzymes and pathways that degrade lignin and related aromatic compounds. Using methodologies pioneered, in part by previous Genome BC funded research, they mined lignin depolymerization activities from microbial communities in BC’s biomass-containing hot springs. Degradation pathways for lignin depolymerization products were also identified in bacteria from compost and hot springs using various genomic and stable isotopic approaches. Part of the work charactering enzymes involved in the degradation of unique lignin derived compound – alkylguaiacol – was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), a highly prestigious journal.

Following on, in partnership with a variety of industrial and government partners, including FPInnovations, Fibria, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and AB Enzymes, the team is using the isolated enzymes and pathways to develop bioprocesses to valorize woody biomass; they also plan to commercialize those bioprocesses. The knowledge and innovation emerging from this project will contribute to revitalizing BC’s forest industry, driving its sustainability, growth, productivity, and global competitiveness.