Working in adjacent RMIT labs nearly 20 years ago, newly appointed academic Trevor Stevenson and doctoral student Victoria Haritos were engaged in what on the surface seemed like separate research projects - on plants and insects respectively.
However, their research was linked by the type of enzyme they were both investigating: the diverse and ubiquitous cytochrome P450 monoxygenases.
Now they are among a team of enzyme engineers, microbial systems biologists and energy crop biotechnologists sharing expertise to develop processes using enzyme biotechnology techniques to produce liquid fuels from waste plant materials. CSIRO predicts biofuels will provide at least 30 per cent of Australia's future transport needs.
"Quite accidentally we ended up working together," says Haritos, now a team leader at CSIRO's Entomology Division and who gained her PhD at RMIT. She will draw on her research on insects and other organisms and the enzymes they possess that help break down plant material as part of the $8.3 million venture.
Scientists from the Australian National University and the Universities of Queensland and Manchester are also involved in the three-year CSIRO Energy Transformed Flagship.
Trevor Stevenson is now Associate Professor of Plant Biotechnology at RMIT. It was at Calgene in the United States in the mid-1980s that he met Professor David Stalker, also now at RMIT's School of Applied Sciences, and a key figure in research on the use of plants in the ethanol production process. Senior lecturer Dr Gregory Nugent is the third member of the RMIT team.
"We have been talking about this for a long time and it's only recently that we have been able to secure some serious funding for this work," Stevenson says. He and Stalker worked with the late Dr Mike Dalling, a pioneering biotechnologist, initially securing research funds from American petroleum company, Chevron Technology Ventures.
An Australian Research Council Linkage Grant made some further funding available. "In 2002, Mike, Dave and I were part of a workshop led by CSIRO's Dr John Oakeshott, put together to initiate the development of a roadmap for Australian biotransformation industries," Stevenson says.
"One of the things that came out of that was the need to look to so-called second-generation biofuels, which do not compete with food products from agriculture.
"The whole problem with biofuels is accessing the carbon. It's about getting in through the lignin (the biological 'glue' that binds the cells, fibres and vessels which make up woody parts of plants, as in straw), and then breaking down the cellulose so that it can be fermented to make fuel."
Agricultural crop residues such as cereal straw could provide huge amounts of ligno-cellulosic waste that could potentially be used as feedstock for fermentation and biofuel production.
But Stevenson says while production of ethanol from plant biomass is technically, relatively straightforward, the pre-treatment of biomass with significant amounts of enzymes of fungal or bacterial origin makes this feedstock commercially not viable and production on a significant enough scale not yet feasible.
The alternative that he and his team are looking at is using biotechnology to make and store the lingo-cellulose-degrading enzymes in the plant tissue, essentially, getting the plant to make and store the enzyme in advance - and for free.
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Cities Work magazine.
Source: RMIT University http://www.rmit.edu.au/browse;ID=i1kyi5ww9c5n;STATUS=A