Monday, 30 September 2019

Better knowledge about plant biomass degradation will advance enzymology and the biochemistry of biomass utilization and biosustainability

Advancing biomass utilization and biosustainability requires improving understanding of the microbial degradation of plant biomass. Through its Challenge Programme, the Novo Nordisk Foundation will help by supporting research on microbial secretomes and the plant cell wall.

Microorganisms such as saprophytic fungi and soil bacteria are the main degraders of plant biomass. These microbes feed off dead organic material by deconstructing the polymers in the plant cell walls. The enzymes that fungi and bacteria use to degrade the biomass are secreted outside the cell and are therefore referred to as the secretome.

Despite the important role of the microbial secretome in the biosphere, surprisingly little is known about its systems biology. The Novo Nordisk Foundation wants to help to obtain deeper understanding of this field by supporting research on the microbial secretome and the plant cell wall decomposition as part of its 2020 Challenge Programme.

The Challenge Programme addresses global challenges within health and technology. The Foundation is awarding 6-year grants of DKK 30million to 60 million each under the Programme.

“We know about the performance and mechanisms of biomass-degrading microbes, but we have little insight into how fungi and bacteria interact with their substrates and the time-dependent reactions they apply to break down the whole structure of plant biomass,” says Claus Felby, Head of Life Science Research and Industrial Applications, Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Advancing biomass utilization and biosustainability requires obtaining a deeper understanding of how the microbial secretome is modulated and adapted to the plant cell wall structure. The outcome will provide insight into the interactions between microorganisms and substrates and provide a new tool for discovering biochemical reactions.

Better understanding of the interactions between the microbial secretome and the plant cell walls will support the identification of new enzymes or the development of more efficient enzymes and the discovery of new applications and enzyme-based technologies.

“By studying microorganisms, we have learned about the turnover of biomass in the biological carbon cycle and discovered enzymes that are currently produced and used for applications in numerous industrial sectors. We need a variety of methods and experimental strategies to provide more information, because the structures, mechanisms and processes involved encompass the micro, nano and gene levels as well as quantum mechanical phenomena,” explains Claus Felby and mentions researchers working within microbiology, enzymology, biophysics and industrial biotechnology as examples of possible grant applicants.

About the 2020 Challenge Programme

The Microbial Secretome and the Plant Cell Wall is one of four themes in the Foundation’s 2020 Challenge Programme. The total budget for this theme is DKK 120 million.

Read more about the research theme, the application criteria and the application process here.

For the application round of 2020, the Challenge Programme is seeking to support outstanding scientists working within one of the following four themes, with a total of up to DKK 480 million being awarded in 2020:

  • Neurodegenerative Diseases in an Ageing Population
  • Biodiversity and Productivity of Managed Ecosystems
  • The Microbial Secretome and the Plant Cell Wall
  • Quantum Simulators for Unravelling Complex Processes in Nature

The Programme will open for applications on 14 October. The deadline for applications is 12 December 2019.

About the Novo Nordisk Foundation

The Novo Nordisk Foundation is an independent Danish foundation with corporate interests. It has two objectives: 1) to provide a stable basis for the commercial and research activities of the companies in the Novo Group; and 2) to support scientific, humanitarian and social causes.

The vision of the Foundation is to contribute significantly to research and development that improves the lives of people and the sustainability of society. Since 2010, the Foundation has donated more than DKK 20 billion (€2.7 billion), primarily for research at public institutions and hospitals in Denmark and the other Nordic countries as well as research-based treatment and prevention of diabetes. Read more at

Further information

Dina Petranovic Nielsen, Senior Scientific Officer, phone: +45 7730 1597,

Christian Mostrup Scheel, Senior Press Officer, phone: +45 3067 4805,