Termite guts provide biofuel cocktail

By Colin Ricketts - 07 Jul 2011 15:11:0 GMT
Termite guts provide biofuel cocktail

Termites are famous for their industrious ways and could prove a boon to the green fuel industry acting as tiny fuel refineries says new research.

Mike Scharf, the O. Wayne Rollins/Orkin Chair in Molecular Physiology and Urban Entomology, found that the enzymes, which the termites use to make their food digestible could be perfect for breaking down woody biomass for use in fuels.

His research is published online in the journal PLoS One, and is the first time that sugar outputs from termites have been measured. Key to the findings are symbionts; tiny organisms that live inside the termites and help break down their woody diet.

"For the most part, people have overlooked the host termite as a source of enzymes that could be used in the production of biofuels. For a long time it was thought that the symbionts were solely responsible for digestion," Scharf said.

"Certainly the symbionts do a lot, but what we've shown is that the host produces enzymes that work in synergy with the enzymes produced by those symbionts. When you combine the functions of the host enzymes with the symbionts, it's like one plus one equals four."

Now Scharf and his team have produced a synthetic version of the enzymes which they have found to be effective in sugar production from biomass too.

Sugars from biomass are distilled to make ethanol and other fuels.

"We've found a cocktail of enzymes that create sugars from wood," Scharf said. "We were also able to see for the first time that the host and the symbionts can synergistically produce these sugars."

Top Image Credit: © Sam D'Cruz