Boat-Eating Bug May Hold Key for Future of Biofuels

New research out of the University of York in Britain is unraveling some mysteries of the common wood-eating gribble that could provide the key to cheaply turning abundant wood and straw fiber into biofuel.

For centuries the gribble has been known to the seafaring world mainly for eating holes in their ships, docks and piers — causing untold amounts of damage. But the bug’s uncanny knack for digesting raw wood holds the promise of enzymes that can, by themselves, turn wood and straw fibers into sugars, which can then be easily turned into ethanol through simple fermentation.

The current process of making this kind of ethanol, known as cellulosic ethanol (or “celluline,” as I like to call it), is quite difficult; with many companies resorting to energy-intensive plasma gasification or multiple steps involving toxic hot baths of chemicals or extremely long processing times.

But the gut of the gribble plays host to some pretty amazing enzymes the creature produces all on its own that accomplish the same things that plasma gasification or toxic chemicals can — but without all the fuss. Investigating little wood-eating creatures like gribbles and termites for answers on how to turn wood and straw into fuel is not new. Over a year ago, I wrote about similar research on termites. But termites accomplish the breakdown of wood by working in coordination with some microbes that inhabit their guts, whereas gribbles make the enzymes all by themselves and have no microbial help.

It’s this subtle difference that makes gribbles potentially more valuable to the world of biofuels. If we could simply produce some enzymes that worked in an industrial setting to turn wood and straw waste into sugar, there would be virtually no barriers to producing cheap and plentiful, ecologically sound ethanol.

The researchers are currently trying to figure out exactly how the enzymes work. After that the next hurdle would be to figure out a way to scale them up to work on the commercial level. As the researchers point out, perhaps one day people will be piloting boats powered by biofuels produced with enzymes from a bug that used to cost the boating industry lots of money. How’s that for a twist of fate?

Source: EurekAlert!


Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.