'Green algae chows down on other plants'
New York: Green algae break down other plant materials and slurp them up as food when deprived of other sources of energy, a new finding that could be useful in making bio-diesel.
It's the first time that a member of the plant kingdom has been shown to break down another plant's cellulose - the biopolymer that gives strength to plants' cell walls - and use it as an energy source, according to the new research.
Normally, the algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii uses the Sun to turn carbon dioxide and water into the simple sugar glucose, via the process of photosynthesis, 'OurAmazingPlanet' website reported.
However, when researchers deprived the tiny cell of carbon dioxide, it cannibalised other plants' materials, said Lutz Wobbe, a researcher at Germany's University of Bielefeld.
"Our study for the first time demonstrates that an organism which is capable of performing photosynthesis can digest cellulose as well," Wobbe said.
Wobbe said this trick could come in handy in the production of biofuels like cellulosic ethanol, where expensive enzymes are needed to break down tough cellulose and turn it into simpler sugars that can then be converted to ethanol.
The finding could be useful in making biodiesel, since green algae C reinhardtii is capable of making fats that can be converted into the fuel.
The algae break down cellulose by secreting an enzyme called cellulase, an ability thought to be unique to fungi, bacteria and animals, Wobbe said.
Christoph Benning, biochemist at Michigan State University said the finding wasn't shocking, but hadn't been clearly shown before.
"I cannot recall another plant that breaks down cellulose and takes up the sugars. It's not that super-surprising, but I haven't heard anything like it before," Benning said.
It makes sense that this species could live off of cellulose since it normally lives in the soil, where carbon dioxide and sunlight isn't always readily available, but other plant materials are, said Stephen Mayfield, director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology.
"The real world is a tough place, it is literally eat or be eaten," he said.