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‘Plants eating plants’: Algae can break down cellulose

The photosynthetic organisms known as algae are fast-growing and hardy – as long as they have light, water and carbon dioxide, they can produce their own food and survive and thrive in conditions that other plants can’t grow in.

Now another survival trick of algae has come to light: In a low-carbon dioxide environment, algae can break down the cellulose found in plant matter and use the sugars released for energy.

“This is the first time that such behavior has been confirmed in a vegetable organism,” said Prof. Olaf Kruse of Germany’s Bielefeld University.

Previously, only worms, bacteria and fungi showed the ability to digest cellulose and use it as a source of carbon for their growth and survival.

“That algae can digest cellulose contradicts every previous textbook. To a certain extent, what we are seeing is plants eating plants,” said Professor Kruse.

In a series of experiments Professor Kruse and his team cultivated the green alga species Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and exposed them to a low-carbon dioxide environment.

It was observed that under these circumstances, the alga secretes cellulose enzymes which can bread down cellulose into its smaller sugar components and transformed into a source of energy for the alga.

Professor Kruse and his team are currently studying whether other alga have this ability with preliminary finding indicating that this is the case.

Alga’s ability to digest cellulose can be of great interest for the bioenergy sector. Breaking down cellulose is one of the most important steps in the production of biofuel – it is also one of the most difficult.

Currently most cellulose enzymes are extracted from fungi; however, algae could be a cheaper source as they are easier to cultivate. Fungi need organic material in order to grow, while algae can use water and light and a small amount of carbon dioxide. In fact, as the tests show, it might be ideal for the algae to lack a carbon source if we are to use them as a source of cellulose enzymes for the biofuel production process. – EcoSeed Staff

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