1 March 2013

Danish crystal gazer to show way from garbage to fuel


Turning inedible plant waste into fuel is desirable because it’s good for world climate as well as for local self-sustainability. Unfortunately it’s fiendishly difficult. Now a chemist from University of Copenhagen has been awarded pan a European grant to search for ways to decompose waste from farming and forestry in collaboration with an international team combining science and business.

Linchpin in international project

Leila Lo Leggio is a chemistry researcher at the University of Copenhagen. She has spent decades scrutinizing the crystal structure of enzymes, nature’s own decomposition machines. The European Commission research network “Era IB” has awarded 12.5 mio DKK to the upcoming international programme “Critical Enzymes for Sustainable Biofuels from Cellulose” (CESBIC )  where her work will be pivotal.

"I’m really proud to be a true science geek but I’m even more proud that industry wants to partner up with me

Leila Lo Leggio,

Lektor, Kemisk Institut,

Københavns Universitet

Bid to identify, analyze, categorize and commercialize enzymes

In this programme Lo Leggio will be collaborating with the Universities of York and Cambridge, UK, Aix-Marseille Université CNRS, France, and the industrial partner Novozymes A/S, Denmark, in a bid to identify, analyze, categorize and commercialize enzymes capable of degrading difficult types of cellulose from waste such as wood chips.

Surprising metals was breakthrough

A breakthrough for this line of research came in 2011, when this group of researchers was able to partially explain how a certain class of copper-containing enzymes chop up cellulose and break it into sugar. The key to that insight was to look at the structure of the enzymes, because with enzymes,form equals function.

“Research into the crystal structure of enzymes is about as fundamental as research ever becomes. I’m really proud to be a true science geek but I’m even more proud that industry wants to partner up with me, because I ’m good at what I do”, says associate Professor Leila Lo Leggio.

International lineup of enzyme stars

In the upcoming project Dr. Katja S. Johansen at Novozymes will be in charge of supplying the enzymes for study. A group at the University of Cambridge headed by Prof Paul Dupree will provide uniform samples of polysaccharides for the enzymes to eat. Bernard Henrissat at Aix-Marseille Université will set up a database classifying activity, structure and genome of promising enzymes and together with Professors Paul Walton and Gideon Davies from University of York and Leila Lo Leggio at University of Copenhagen will try to show what role the metal plays in the copper containing enzymes.

Organic molecules with surprise metals

Enzymes are primarily organic molecules, and most polysaccharide degrading enzymes do not have metal atoms as an essential parts of their machinery, so Lo Leggio has no doubt that a deeper understanding of how these enzymes utilize metal will give science and industry the key to start producing bioethanol in a cheap and expedient manner.

“We know that metals alone do not break down cellulose. So the organic components of the enzymes play a key role. If we can understand what that role is, the enzyme industry can start designing enzymes, that are even more efficient,” explains Leila Lo Leggio.

Global database of interesting enzymes

The first industrial player to benefit from the research will obviously be the partner Novozymes. But the aim of the project is to be of benefit to the wider European and global bioethanol community through building up the database for this class of enzymes.