Biofuel From A Termite's Butt?

The Termite... from zero to heroThe Termite... from zero to hero

Termites... these ground-dwelling insect pests cause millions of dollars worth of damage each year to wooden structures by eating them. Now scientists are closer to understanding how termites convert wood into energy - and how we humans might do the same; cleanly, "greenly" and economically.

Termites mainly eat dead wood with very little nutritional value, effectively converting it to energy needed to survive and thrive. How do they do it?

The answer lies deep inside their digestive systems where hundreds of different bacteria and microorganisms live symbiotically. It's a common trade-off in nature.

The organisms provide energy to the host animal in return for a safe living environment with lots of food. Humans have a similar relationship with our own intestinal flora.

Scientists have long sought to understand which microorganisms are chiefly responsible for decomposing wood within the termite's gut, but most of the bacterial strains have been resistant to culturing in the lab. Now all that will change, thanks to a breakthrough made by researchers at Japan's Riken Discovery Research Institute.

Scientists at the Environmental Molecular Biology Laboratory at Riken used a DNA synthesis enzyme to completely decode the genome of a key symbiotic microbe in the termite digestive system. The enzymatic sequencing method can now be used to analyze other microbes, one at a time, without having to grow them in cultures.

Zooming in to the termite's tiny biofuel factoriesZooming in to the termite's tiny biofuel factories
What all this means is that some day we will be able to convert non-nutritional biomass in the form of dead wood, wood byproducts and the like into energy without using land or crops required for food - a growing problem today. As for the despised termite, this discovery can only serve to improve its reputation (via Tech-On!).