Researchers at the University of Florida are reporting that the enzymes in the guts of termites could provide a powerful tool for making ethanol from non-food woody plants.
In an upcoming review paper, professor Michael Scharf details how termites — which cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to houses in the US alone each year — might actually prove useful for something that most people could never have envisioned.
Through millions of years of evolution, termites have filled a niche in the animal world that takes precise chemical coordination between the digestive enzymes and microbes in their guts to turn the wood that they eat into sugars which can then be used to “fuel” the termite.
It is this seemingly easy transformation of wood into sugar in the termite guts that holds the promise for future ethanol production, because, once you have the sugar, it’s easy to make ethanol through fermentation.
Making ethanol from food crops such as corn (as is currently done) is quite controversial and, some argue, contributes to the starvation of millions of people worldwide. The next generation of ethanol, called cellulosic ethanol, will most likely be made from non-food crops such as switchgrass, wood chips and miscanthus.
The problem with cellulosic ethanol is that it takes a lot of resources and energy to convert the cellulose into sugars using current technology. The lessons we can learn from the termite guts could bring these costs way down.
Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, Dr. Scharf suggests that nature has already done the work for us over millions of years. The work of Scharf and others in deciphering the enzymes and chemical interactions involved in turning wood into sugar has already resulted in the discovery of new enzymes that appear to be useful for ethanol production.
As Dr. Scharf Says:
“There are many directions that the science can now head. First, we now have the ability to produce and test individual enzymes for their competency and roles in [woody plant] degradation. Once we identify major players (from termites), we can test combinations that may have applications in making bioethanol production more feasible from existing feedstocks, and maybe even other feedstocks that aren’t on our radar screens yet.”
Makes a ton of sense to me. Let’s just hope it doesn’t disappear into obscurity like so much science does these days.
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