SCIENTISTS from the University of York are part of a team of researchers which has discovered enzymes in fungi capable of breaking down one of the main components of wood.

The enzymes could now potentially be used to sustainably convert wood biomass into valuable chemical commodities such as biofuels.

A university spokeswoman said that as an alternative to coal and oil, wood was increasingly one of the more promising sources of advanced biofuels but despite its potential, it was a difficult material to break down.

“Current wood biorefineries have to use pre-treatment processes, making the conversion of wood into fuels and products expensive and energy-consuming,”she said.

“In ecosystems, fungi play a significant role in breaking down wood within the carbon cycle, releasing nutrients back into soil. This property of fungi inspired the researchers to investigate the mechanisms that allow this process to take place.”

Co-author of the paper, Professor Paul Walton from the Department of Chemistry, said: “Back in 2010 we made the key discovery that a group of enzymes found in fungi, contain copper – these enzymes are now known to be an important component in the decomposition of biomass by biology. This research builds on that work by identifying further enzymes from this class which have the ability to break down wood’s challenging molecular structure.”

Prof Gideon Davies, also from the Department of Chemistry, said: “This discovery unlocks the key scientific challenge of how biorefineries can convert wood into biofuel in an environmental and cost-effective way, bringing us a step closer to a sustainable 21st Century.”