What would you say if I told you that insects may help us break our dependence on oil products for fuel? Most people would probably laugh and say “Yeah right!” However, in an article soon to be published in Biofuels, Bioproducts & Biorefining, Assistant Professor of entomology at the University of Florida in Gainesville Michael Scharf has many people reconsidering this seemingly preposterous idea.
Scharf and his colleague Aurelien Tartar are studying how the digestive enzymes and bacterial symbionts present in the guts of termites may aid in the production of bioethanol as an alternative fuel source. “Through millions and millions of years of evolution, termites and their symbionts have acquired highly specialized enzymes that work together to efficiently covert wood and other plant material into simple sugars. These enzymes are of the most value to bioethanol production,” says Scharf.
Currently bioethanol production uses edible plant parts for production. This is partly responsible for what makes the production of bioethanol so controversial, and may be attributed to the recent rise in food prices. But, as always, there is another option. The non-edible parts of plants that humans might not find quite so tasty such as the stalks of corn and trunks of trees are capable of storing large quantities of sugar. These complex sugars are important for producing bioethanol. However, using conventional means, these sugars are also very difficult to access and breakdown into more usable substances. This due to the fact that the majority of these sugars are part of a structure called lignocellulose. Lignocellulose is extremely important in plants and helps maintain the rigidity the plant cell wall, without which plants would not be able to stand up against gravity. Termites on the other hand have no trouble what-so-ever breaking down these complex sugars as part of their diet.
Scharf and Tartar as well as other research groups are currently studying what has been termed the “termite digestome.” This is a collection of genes from both the termite’s digestive system and the bacterial symbionts that live there that encode the enzymes able to so easily breakdown the lignocellulose. With this information, researchers hope to aid in the develop of a brand new method of production using these highly specialized enzymes that will more easily and efficiently produce bioethanol and perhaps one day, ultimately help rid of us of our dependence on oil. I bet you never thought a termite could look so good.
Question for discussion: Do you think it’s possible that nature may help lead us to other kinds of solutions to many of the environmental problems we face today?
News story link: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081021190648.ht
Scientific article: can be found at this site when the paper is published: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/114071350/home
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