O’Malley’s research, which she recently presented at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society, involves the use of anaerobic gut fungi from horses, sheep, and other large herbivores to convert the cellulose in plants into sugars. Nature has evolved these fungi to break through lignin, a tough biopolymer that surrounds cellulose, and convert that cellulose into sugars. Through a process of fermentation, these sugars are later converted into bioalcohols such as ethanol. Typically, food crops like corn and sugarcane have been used for bioalcohol production because extraction of sugars from these materials is relatively easy. However, a drawback to fuel production from these energy crops is that they compete for space with crops grown for food. Meanwhile, using non-food crops, or the parts of food plants with denser lignin networks to extract sugar, is costly and energy-consuming.
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