Image courtesy of The Institute for Figuring
As efforts continue apace to devise ever more intricate approaches to producing cellulosic ethanol, one group of scientists has decided to reconsider one of nature's most efficient and well-studied models - the termite gut. Led by Jared Leadbetter, a microbiologist from Caltech, the genomic study of the termite gut's micro-inhabitants revealed almost 1,000 enzymes known to play a role in the breakdown of wood.
In their current form, most existing cellulosic ethanol technologies are costly, inefficient affairs; the main problem, according to Caltech's Frances Arnold, has been finding enzymes able to produce the necessary metabolic intermediates from wood. Termites, she explains, have been able to resolve this critical issue. The nearly 1,000 candidate enzymes Leadbetter and his colleagues identified in the guts of Nasutitermes termites were glycohydrolases - known to break down plant carbohydrates like cellulose. The trick will now be to understand how the termites are able to use these enzymes to break down wood so efficiently - which means they will first need to figure out what they do.
"Termites have been turning wood into their own biofuel for 200 million years. How does the system dismantle and degrade wood? If there's any hope of engineering a system to make products we want, we need a better understanding of the system and take the best components for what we want to do."
One enzyme and biofuel company based in Cambridge, MA - Verenium - is already moving ahead with plans to test the properties of some of these newly discovered enzymes.