New families of proteins and enzymes will enable the development of novel plant-based biomaterials, potentially providing viable sustainable and renewable alternatives to plastics and other fossil-fuel-derived materials and chemicals.
The results of the BHIVE project, led by Finland’s Aalto University, have attracted interest from international forestry companies and chemical firms, keen to tap into a fast-growing market for high-value biochemicals and bioplastics that is generating new commercial opportunities in the forest and agricultural sectors.
‘Assessing the value and applications for all key plant-derived substances is central to meeting international commitments to reduce carbon emissions, particularly in Nordic countries like Finland where the forest is the main renewable resource,’ says lead researcher Emma Master. ‘At the same time, genomics research over the past decade has uncovered the critical importance of microbial enzymes to expanding the range of products that can be made from renewable biomass.’
To date, most applications have focused on using enzymes to deconstruct lignocellulose – the main building block of plant cells – into low-cost fuels and chemicals. Instead, Master and her team are identifying proteins and enzymes capable of upgrading, rather than degrading, plant matter.
‘So far, we have uncovered three different protein families with the ability to uniquely transform plant-derived carbohydrates into new materials and biofunctional building blocks,’ Master says. ‘In particular, our work concentrates on upgrading hemicellulose, a comparatively underused, complex and abundant component of plant fibre.’
In addition, the BHIVE researchers developed novel techniques to investigate the potential of non-catalytic proteins and unique fungus-derived proteins to modify plant-fibre structures. They also designed research methods to enhance the discovery of proteins and enzymes with specific properties, leveraging technological advances in fields such as functional genomics, protein engineering and robotics for enzyme screening.
The BHIVE project, support by a grant from the European Research Council, is also facilitating strong collaborations with researchers in Canada, Sweden, France and Germany, and enabling mobility opportunities for early-stage researchers.