Bacteria could transform paper industry waste into useful products

Getting more useful products out of renewable resources like wood is the goal of scientists who are using Canada’s only synchrotron.

By Erin Matthews

Prof. Lindsay Eltis and colleague performing analyses in a lab.

Video: Bacteria could transform paper industry waste into useful products

Dr. Lindsay Eltis, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at The University of British Columbia, and his team are studying how bacteria transform wood-derived compounds into useful chemicals. Harnessing this process could lead to new, eco-friendly biotechnologies.

The researchers used the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) to study an enzyme that breaks down the ring structures found in lignin, a major component of the woody biomass that is burned by the pulp and paper industry.

Using synchrotron technology, the team was able to visualize and describe this enzyme for the first time. Their results were published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Eltis believes that bacteria represent a greener way of doing things. Instead of burning lignin, it could be converted by bacteria into chemicals that are usually generated by the petroleum industry

“Bacteria can transform an underutilized by-product of the paper industry into useful biomaterials like nylon and help create a ‘circular bioeconomy,’” he said.

“One of humankind's goal moving forward is to reduce our carbon emission,” said Eltis. “Being able to transform renewable resources would really go a long way to achieving some of these goals.”

Navas, Laura E., Michael Zahn, Harbir Bajwa, Jason C. Grigg, Megan E. Wolf, Anson CK Chan, Michael EP Murphy, John E. McGeehan, and Lindsay D. Eltis. "Characterization of a phylogenetically distinct extradiol dioxygenase involved in the bacterial catabolism of lignin-derived aromatic compounds." Journal of Biological Chemistry (2022): 101871. DOI:

Photos: Synchrotron CMCF beamline used for this study | Eltis and colleagues

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Canadian Light Source