Today was full of lab tours around the UW campus. At each stop, we learned a little more about the specific "area" of the GLBRC project. The first stop was Area 1, which focuses on plant research. They use the NMR to study the plants structure, especially the lignin that makes it difficult to deconstruct the plants before fermentation.
Area 2 focused on deconstruction. Kate and Shishir showed models of how the enzymes break apart plants so the the sugars can be fermented. They will be created new enzymes that are housed in new, unstable microorganisms. They will be able to do the task in a controlled environment for a limited amount of time.
Area 3 focused on fermentation, finally taking a pretreated plant and converting it to ethyl alcohol. There was a lot of equipment to try different fermentation steps on large and small scale, often with 1,000 replications!
One of the cooler stops was into the microbiology building, home of the leaf cutter ants! Found in Costa Rica and other places in Central America, they have a mutualistic relationship with a fungus that they farm and grow by collecting leaves and then feeding it. The ants do not eat the plant material, but instead the nutrient rich fungus. The scientists in this lab are studying the fungus to see what microbes are able to break down celluloisic material.