Can Termites Power Your Car?

Combing through my reserves of awesome research story ideas from throughout the Big Ten, I discovered another interesting study regarding biofuels. It’s quite similar to the one posted yesterday, except this time the researchers are looking elsewhere for a natural way to release the sugar and energy from hard-to-digest biomass.

Honestly, when I was writing about the fungus that degrades wood for the bark beetles to consume, I thought, “What about termites?”

And low and behold, somebody has thought of that.

Specifically, Mike Scharf of Molecular Physiology and Urban Entomology at Purdue has thought of that. Termites, as I’m sure everyone knows, eat wood. Thus, there must be something going on inside of the little buggers that allows them to break down the more durable sugars in the wood because there certainly isn’t much sucrose or glucose sitting around in tree bark. (In other words, it doesn’t taste like candy.)

The specific question that Scharf set out to answer was whether the symbiotic bacteria living in the digestive tract of the termite is responsible for breaking down the complex sugars or if it’s something in the termite itself. As it turns out, it’s option C. The two together pack a much more powerful punch than either on their own.

“What we’ve shown is that the host produces enzymes that work in synergy with the enzymes produced by the symbionts,” explains Scharf. “When you combine the functions of the host enzymes with the symbionts, it’s like one plus one equals four.”

Once the team identified the specific enzymes that were working together to break down lignocelluloses, they wanted to know if they could get the same combination to work elsewhere. So they hit caterpillars with a virus that carried the genes responsible for creating the enzymes. Soon enough, the caterpillars were producing synthetic versions of the enzymes and were also very effective at releasing sugar from biomass.

Next, Scharf is looking at which exact combination of enzymes present in termites will work best at breaking down biomass. Perhaps eventually the perfect combination will allow scientists to create large numbers of bugs to create ethanol for biofuel.

Or perhaps those wood-eating caterpillars will escape and wreak havoc on the world as we know it. Eat your brains out, Zombies.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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