As announced on our website, I was pleased to participate last Tuesday (Jan 27) in the press briefing and formal launch of BSBEC, a nested acronym that stands for the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre. This is a virtual centre that represents a collaboration between a large number of research institutions and is part of the Research Councils’ Energy Programme. It involves a BBSRC investment of £20M with additional investments of £7M from industry, plus further contributions from the consortium partners.

The focus of a very exciting scientific programme is on the generation of bioenergy and transport biofuels from woody biomass and from waste materials that do not compete with food production for land (as do many so-called first-generation biofuels). The origins of this programme lay in a report from a Panel that I chaired for BBSRC, and in some of the analyses from the subsequent Gallagher report.

There is a series of processes that need to be optimised to improve the efficiency of second-generation biofuel production. The upstream end of the system is of course solar energy, and the chain progresses via photosynthesis, biomass production, biomass composition, biomass deconstruction, and fermentation. The BSBEC programme covers, and seeks to improve the efficiency of, each of these, with the potential for an overall six-fold improvement in the efficiency of energy conversion ‘from photon to fuel’. This may sound like a lot, but bear in mind that the overall efficiency of photosynthesis itself, including the dark reactions, is probably only some 1-2%!

In developing a story, journalists usually light on something they think their readers will find particularly interesting. In this case, much journalistic interest focussed on the part of the programme concerned with marine wood borers (Limnoria isopods), a potential source of novel enzymes for deconstructing woody biomass and turning it into fermentable sugars. The journalistic attraction of this part of the programme evidently came in part from the wonderful trivial name these organisms have acquired, viz ‘gribbles’. The etymology of ‘gribble’ is somewhat uncertain, most commentators (e.g. M-W online) seeing it as a diminutive of ‘grub’. I suspect (and I am not alone, though it is not listed) that it may be onomatopoeic, from the presumed sound of their wood-boring activities. Amusingly, the term also has a meaning in computing: “Random binary data rendered as unreadable text. Noise characters in a data stream are displayed as gribble.”

The (biological) gribbles remind us of the very great extent and importance of biodiversity as sources of bioactive natural products. Leaving aside enzymes and other biologicals, a large fraction of marketed pharmaceuticals are based on or find their origins in natural products, and there is continuing interest in exploiting them. A recent summary shows also that they were as successful as those derived from physico-chemical considerations alone, possibly because successful marketed drugs and natural products are more like metabolic intermediates than are purely synthetic molecules. Genome mining is capable of providing clues to novel natural products even when these have not been previously observed in extracts or cultures of the producer organism. Mutasynthesis provides a means of modifying them when they have. Food security is a major issue on which I shall blog soon. However, from bioenergy to enzymes to drugs, we depend on the natural world for considerably more products than just food. The BSBEC will provide an important focus for some of these.

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