Multitasking Microbes: UW–Madison Scientists Engineer Bacteria to Make Two Valuable Products from Plant Fiber; Discovery Could Help Make Biofuels More Sustainable and Commercially Viable

Recent UW–Madison PhD graduate Ben Hall's research showed it's possible to modify the Novosphingobium aromaticivorans bacterium to simultaneously produce two valuable chemicals from an underutilized part of plant cells called lignin. (Credit:
Chelsea Mamott / University of Wisconsin–Madison).
We often look to the smallest lifeforms for help in solving the biggest problems: Microbes help make foods and beverages, cure diseases, treat waste, and even clean up pollution. Yeast and bacteria can also convert plant sugars into biofuels and chemicals traditionally derived from fossil fuels — a key component of most plans to slow climate change. Now University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers have engineered bacteria that can produce two chemical products at the same time from underutilized plant fiber. And unlike humans, these multitasking microbes can do both things equally well. “To my knowledge, it’s one of the first times you can make two valuable products simultaneously in one microbe,” says Tim Donohue, PhD, UW–Madison Professor of Bacteriology and Director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC).
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