Monday, 6 June 2011

Aspergillus niger provides clues to help solve our future energy crisis

Motorists will be very aware that the price of petrol and diesel fuels are rising ever faster as supply fails to meet demand throughout the world. Some of this shortage is due to political troubles in oil producing parts of the world and some due to ever increasing demand in parts of the world that are formerly low consumers of energy per head of population eg China & India. See also this graph of daily oil consumption around the world.

Of course ultimately gas & oil supplies will dwindle as stocks are finite (report), so the stage is set for further price rises, to levels that make the use of traditional fuels for vehicles unaffordable and impractical. New fuels must be found, preferably cleaner fuels!

As the search for new ways to power the world's transport goes on Aspergillus is playing its part. Aspergillus is already well established as an organism that can be used to mass produce substances like citric acid, enzymes & food supplements via fermentation technology.
Aspergillus niger (Aspergillus website Wikipedia) is particularly good  at breaking down complex materials such as polysaccharides (e.g. cellulose plant stalks - often thrown away) into useful sugars, thus making food production more efficient by making use of waste by-products of the food & farming industries.

Very similar technology can be used to break down waste matter into simple molecules that can be used as cleaner-burning biofuels while at the same time not using up valuable foods such as grain - currently a major problem for the scaling up of the production of biofuels.

While Aspergillus niger is already good at this process, every little improvement counts in this vital race to secure our energy production for the future. This is where research into the genomes of Aspergillus niger comes in.  Sequencing entire A. niger genomes, each taken from strains of A. niger that are used in different parts of the fermantation industries and comparing them with each other it is hoped that we can learn more about how each strain works, why some are better at some parts of the process that others and so on in the hope of improving all strains for our own purposes.

Comparative genomics of citric-acid-producing Aspergillus niger ATCC 1015 versus enzyme-producing CBS 513.88.

So successful was this approach many further strains are being sequenced to be subjected to the same analysis.

Aspergillus is a serious pathogen of humans and animals and as such quite rightly gets a bad press, but here we can see that it is also a formidable ally if used and controlled. It may even help solve the worlds forthcoming energy crisis!

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