Developing Anaerobic Fungi As a platform for Efficient lignocellulose hydrolysis
Lignocellulose is an ubiquitous source of fixed carbon that is presently underexploited for renewable energy technologies. Currently, producing enzyme cocktails that robustly degrade these feedstocks is a significant economic bottleneck. Anaerobic gut fungi native to the digestive tracts of ruminants and hindgut fermenters are widely understudied despite their inherent ability to degrade a significant portion (~50%) of the lignocellulose in herbivorous animals. Challenges in cultivation due to their strict oxygen sensitivity, and the lack of a central repository to maintain axenic stocks substantially impede the progress with anaerobic fungi. Yet, these microbes have evolved elegant strategies and may harbor novel biomass degrading enzymes that could be used to more efficiently hydrolyze lignocellulose. Developing these organisms through characterization and genome engineering will yield significant contributions to the bioenergy community by improving hydrolysis technologies.
In this work, we report the isolation of four novel species of anaerobic gut fungi. A more complete characterization of one of our four fungal isolates is investigated, whereby the effects of substrate composition and the corresponding fungal growth rates are compared. I also explore the growth of one of our fungal isolates on transgenic poplar to understand how fungal growth and enzyme secretion adapt to variable lignin composition. Notably, no significant reductions in growth were observed highlighting the ability of anaerobic fungi to degrade diverse feedstocks regardless of lignin composition. I have additionally included preliminary work intended to identify what epigenetic regulational strategies exist for anaerobic fungi, and how they relate to carbohydrate active enzyme expression. We hope to leverage this knowledge to engineer base enzyme cocktails that release significant portions of the fermentable sugars in untreated or mildly treated plant biomass as a means to make bioenergy technologies more efficient.