Author Topic: Termite Bellies and Biofuels  (Read 1463 times)

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Offline Agent_099

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Termite Bellies and Biofuels
« on: August 10, 2008, 10:50:27 PM »
Termite bellies and biofuels

Falk Warnecke peered down through a mounted magnifying glass and poked gently at a small pile of bugs. They were dead-frozen and heaped on a chilled metal block like coffee grounds mounded on a spoon. With a pair of fine-tipped forceps, he grabbed one of the insects at the base of its thorax and lifted it off the block. It was brown, and hardly bigger than an eyelash. With a second forceps, he pinched the end of its abdomen. He tugged gently, and pulled it in two. A shiny, reddish string slid smoothly out of the exoskeleton. Warnecke smiled. “That’s a good thing about termites,” he said with a thick German accent. “You get the whole gut in one piece.”

Warnecke doesn’t want the termite’s plumbing to get torn and its contents mixed around. It’s the contents he’s interested in. The gut has bulbous chambers that are swollen with vast quantities of microbes that the termites employ to break down cellulose from the wood or grass the insects consume. When he’s not calling termites “cute little animals,” he refers to them as “walking bioreactors,” and considers their juicy interiors a kind of liquid gold. For now, he’s interested only in the biggest bulb on the string, what’s known as the third proctodeal segment, or, in the vernacular of microbial ecology, the “hindgut paunch.” This microliter-sized compartment - much larger than the surrounding gut sections and easily distinguished with the naked eye - is home to a distinct community of microbes that some people think may help solve the energy crisis.

Warnecke, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California, has been generating lots of attention lately for his work with termites. The insects are remarkably efficient at turning cellulose into sugar - the first step in making fuel from plants like switchgrass or poplar trees. Scientists can’t compete with termites. They can break apart cellulose’s tough bonds in the lab, but the enzymes they use are wildly, prohibitively expensive. That’s where Warnecke comes in. His research has some people salivating at the prospect of dipping into the termites’ microbial stew and pulling out a few enzymes that would finally make it possible to produce ethanol from cellulose on an industrial scale. (Source: Smithsonian Magazine)
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