From the Stomachs of Termites

article image
courtesy DOE JGI

Who would have thought the lowly and often loathed termite might hold the key to the next step in biofuels. Surprising as it sounds, many scientists believe it an especially good thing we haven’t managed to eradicate this pest because the microscopic creatures that live in its gut, or their genes anyway, have newfound value.

A team has been sequencing DNA and otherwise analyzing the bacteria and protozoans harbored by termites to help digest wood, and they hope to identify enzymes to improve conversion of lignins, cellulose and other waste material into biofuels. Lead by the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute, the research is focused on identifying the microbes and their role in the termite’s digestive tract.

The microbes convert complex wood polymers into readily digested acetates and sugars, which the termites use for nourishment. In the world of biofuels, these tiny organisms may help in deconstructing bio-material so the compounds can be fermented to produce fuels such as ethanol.

“Adapting these findings for an industrial-scale system is far from easy,” says Eddy Rubin, director of DOE JGI. “Termites can efficiently convert milligrams of lignocellulose into fermentable sugars in their tiny bioreactor hindguts. Scaling up this process so that biomass factories can produce biofuels more efficiently and economically is another story.”

The study is a combined effort of the DOE JGI, the California Institute of Technology, the biofuels company Verenium Corp., INBio, the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica, and the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center.