You know all of these global issues that are always on the minds of the planet’s politicians and scientists? Yeah, most of those have been solved by nature for millions of years. Want to be able to fly from Boston to Miami? Countless species of birds make the trip all the time. Need to build a strong structure? One spider’s silk in Africa is 10 times stronger than Kevlar. What about the energy crisis? Plants and animals learned to convert sunlight and biomass to energy billions of years before we showed up.
So, as you might imagine, I’m a pretty big proponent of trying to learn from nature. Natural selection has given the world countless species, most of which have something to teach, even the humble ant.
Take the species of cutter ants, for example, being studied by Cameron Currie at the University of Wisconsin. These little guys live in colonies with up to 10 million workers, each with specialized jobs such as a garbage crew. A single colony can strip a mature eucalyptus tree overnight. By mashing the leaves together in their colony, the ants create a medium for fungus to grow. The result is both a food source and a shelter.
This is a pretty impressive feat, seeing as how the process successfully converts cellulose – a highly energy-dense substance that gives stems and trees their rigidity – into simple sugars that the ants can digest. This is something that we can’t even do yet.
One of the biggest hurdles for creating clean biofuels is figuring out how to break down cellulose. After that point, we pretty much have a good handle on how to convert the sugars into ethanol. But it’s that first step that we’re hung up on.
But maybe these cutter ants can teach us a trick or two. Garret Suen, a scientist in Currie’s lab, is trying to figure out how they break down the tough stuff. It might be the fungus or it might be a certain type of bacteria. Either way, the team is taking samples and applying them to cellulose to see if they will grow. By examining the ones that successfully break down the substance, the scientists can then try to mimic whatever process is being used.
Below are two videos that highlight the entire process. The first is mostly about cutter ants in general while the second is a montage about biofuels in general. The relevant clip comes in the second piece at about 2:15. Both are from the National Science Foundation and both are excellent. Enjoy.