Gut feeling: How animals can transform renewables

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Fungi from the guts of animals such as goats, sheep and horses could transform renewable energy, according to the latest research.

In the study, published by the journal Science, scientists looked at the benefits of using anaerobic fungi living in the guts of herbivores.

They found that when it comes to converting plant material into sugars that can be turned into fuel, the animals' fungi performed as well as "the best fungi engineered by industry," according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (JGI).

"Nature has engineered these fungi to have what seems to be the world's largest repertoire of enzymes that break down biomass," Michelle O'Malley, professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara and lead author of the study, said in the release at the end of last week.

According to the JGI, researchers found that the animals' fungi were able to adapt their enzymes to break down "wood, grass, agricultural waste, or whatever scientists feed it."

The research opens up the potential of industry modifying the fungi "so that they produce improved enzymes that will outperform the best available ones, potentially leading to cheaper biofuels and bio-based products," the JGI said.

Michael Theodorou leads the Agricultural Centre of Sustainable Energy Systems at Harper Adams University and is one of the report's authors.

"In our work we have identified hundreds of enzymes from anaerobic fungi with commercial biotechnology potential," he said in a news release.

"We need to invest more resources to study this group of relatively unknown microorganisms," he went on to add. "They may hold the key to the renewable technology of effective biomass conversion. Their full potential must be explored and exploited."