York Science & Innovation Grand Tour May - Sept 2012

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Grand designs on science

1st February 2012 | by STEPHEN LEWIS York Press

A new outdoor exhibition this summer will use startling images to showcase the world-leading research taking place in York. STEPHEN LEWIS reports on the York Science and Innovation Grand Tour

YOU have probably never heard of gribbles. There is no reason why you should have done. They are tiny marine shrimps that live on Britain’s south coast and look a bit like sea-dwelling woodlice.

These humble little invertebrates, however – a picture of two of them can be seen above – might hold the key to unlocking one of the great challenges of our times: developing new biofuels to replace oil and gas.

The secret lies in their digestive system. Their bodies produce enzymes (chemicals that help in the digestive process) which enable them to break down cellulose, one of the key building blocks of plants.

Humans cannot digest cellulose, which is one of the reasons we cannot eat grass or tough, woody plants. Gribbles can, and scientists at the University of York’s new Biorenewables Development Centre hope that by extracting the powerful enzymes from gribbles, they will be able to study how they work – then copy the process so that grasses, straw and willow can all be broken down more efficiently into fuel.

In theory, they could improve the efficiency of converting such crops into fuel many times over – making biofuels much more economically practical.

The story of the gribbles is one of many tales of scientific ingenuity and innovation involving York scientists and inventors that will be told in a new outdoor exhibition of photographs and images being staged across the city centre this summer.

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