The BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) is a multi-institutional (18 partners), multidisciplinary research (biological, chemical, physical, and computational sciences; mathematics; and engineering) organization focused on the fundamental understanding and elimination of biomass recalcitrance.
When established by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2007, BESC sought researchers from institutions across the United States to bring breadth and depth of expertise to the challenge of overcoming biomass recalcitrance. Transformative advances in understanding recalcitrance require detailed knowledge of the chemical and physical properties of biomass that influence its resistance to degradation. Research has been aimed at determining:
- How these properties can be altered by engineering plant biosynthetic pathways.
- How biomass properties change during pretreatment.
- How such changes affect biomass-biocatalyst interactions during deconstruction by enzymes and microorganisms.
Historically, the term "recalcitrance" was coined to describe an overall phenotypic trait of biomass, namely the degree of difficulty in obtaining access to sugars complexed in the plant cell wall. However, based on new knowledge about cell wall chemistry, structure, and biochemistry, BESC researchers have redefined recalcitrance as a phenomenon in terms of pathways and interactions, both in cell wall formation and bioconversion. This increasing knowledge of the scientific basis of recalcitrance underpins the overall BESC goal of eliminating it as an economic barrier to cost-effective biofuel production.
BESC has made crucial progress toward understanding, manipulating, and managing plant cell wall recalcitrance and conversion. Notably, the BESC team proved the core concept that multiple genes control cell wall recalcitrance and that manipulating these genes potentially could yield perennial biofeedstocks that are easier to deconstruct. This research paves the way for improving feedstocks directly or by genetically assisted breeding. In conversion science, BESC researchers have identified and validated key genes for consolidated bioprocessing (CBP), a game-changing, one-step strategy that uses a single microbe or microbial consortium to both deconstruct biomass and ferment resulting sugars into fuels. Researchers are beginning to modify CBP target organisms to improve conversion and enhance products. In addition, they have shown the potential of thermophilic (heat-loving) microbes in biomass conversion and identified the critical deconstruction enzymes for key components of lignocellulosic biomass. Currently, the BESC team is demonstrating the action of improved CBP on modified plant cell walls.
BESC is organized into three research focus areas: (1) Biomass Formation and Modification, (2) Biomass Deconstruction and Conversion, and (3) Enabling Technologies—all supported by integrating activities.