It turns out that in the quest to figure out how to cheaply convert wood and other fibrous materials, including agricultural waste, into ethanol, the answer may lie with figuring out how termites do it so effectively.
This article gets into the story:
With present technology, it takes so much energy to convert plant material to ethanol that many scientists wonder if it's worth it. If they were as clever as termites, it would be a piece of cake. And wouldn't termites be a surprising ally? According to Ohio State University, termites cause about $2 billion in damages across this nation every year. It's about time they came to our aid.
So Scharf and his colleagues have spent a lot of time over the past five years picking termites apart to see exactly what's involved in their dietary process. It turns out that it's a lot. And learning about it is a bit challenging.
"First, you have to be really good at pulling out their guts so you can isolate them from the rest of the body," Scharf said in a telephone interview. "Their gut is about the size of half of our eyelash. So you work under a microscope and you get really good with your hands." After that, it's all biochemistry and molecular biology.
The Florida researchers have isolated 6,555 genes involved in the digestive process of more than 2,500 worker termites. So they now know which genes are important in converting wood's cellulose and lignin into sugar, which can then be converted into ethanol. But the termites can't do it alone.
The article goes on to reveal how special symbiotic relationships with bacteria in termites' guts are key to converting the wood into sugars and ethanol.
Will scientists find the magical key that unlocks the potential of cellulosic ethanol to help us fuel our vehicles? It seems that this technology is always a few years away...