To make biofuels, tiny microbes can be used to break down plant cells. As part of that digestive process, specialized enzymes break down cellulose—a major molecule that makes plant cell walls rigid. Scientists showed that an enzyme, from the bacterial glycoside hydrolase family 12, plays an unexpectedly important role in breaking down a hard-to-degrade crystalline form of cellulose. Surprisingly, the enzyme breaks apart the cellulose via a random mechanism unlike other hydrolases.
Breaking down cellulose is a major challenge in developing more efficient strategies for converting plant biomass to fuels and chemicals. The discovery of a specialized enzyme that is highly effective at breaking down rigid plant cell wall components could be harnessed to solve this challenge.