Can termites chew their way to ethanol?

By Kennedy Maize

Can termites lead the way to energy independence? A new study from the University of Florida in Gainsville says the tiny wood chompers and the bacteria in their gut could help turn non-edible plant parts into energetic ethanol.

In a paper to be published in the journal Biofuels, Bioproducts & Biorefining, Florida entomologist (that’s a bug guy) Michael Scharf and colleague Aurelien Tartar describe how termites and the little guys in their gut, known as symbionts, could help turn nasty, hard-to-digest cellulose into drive-a-hol (or maybe drink-a-hol?). We’re talking straw, corn stover, wood, and President Bush’s favorite, switchgrass.

Says Scharf in a university press release, “Through millions and millions of years of evolution, termites and their symbionts have acquired highly specialized enzymes that work together to efficiently convert wood and other plant materials into simple sugars. These enzymes are of the most value to bioethanol production.”

Most ethanol production for fuel in the U.S. comes from converting the sugars in corn, beets, and sugarcane into ethyl alcohol. But that diverts these sugars from food production, a controversial proposition as food prices are rising.

The university notes that “non-edible parts of many plants also contain a large number of sugar molecules, which could potentially be used to produce ethanol. But the problem is that these sugar molecules are far less accessible.” They are, in fact, locked up in “lignocelluose,” the two-by-fours of physical structure in the plant cell walls.

Termites, destructive critters that they are, don’t have problems chowing down on lignocelluose. Many homeowners can attest to that fact.

The key, according to the Florida researchers, is the fine grinding of the cellulosic material provided by the termites’ jaws, and the enzymes from the critters themselves and the critters in their bellies.

Scharf and others have probed the enzymes, looking at what he calls the “termite digestome,” the group of genes that produce the enzymes that break down the cellulose. According to the university, “The work has already provided strong preliminary evidence that the enzymes produced by the termites and their symbionts tend to work collaboratively, with the lignocellulosic material having to be partially digested by termite enzymes before it can be further digested by symbiont enzymes.”

Scharf says, “First, we now have the ability to produce and test individual enzymes for their competency and roles in lignocellulose degradation. Once we identify major players (from termites and symbionts), we can test combinations that may have applications in making bioethanol production more feasible from existing feedstocks, and maybe even other feedstocks that aren’t on our radar screens yet.”

Color me skeptical. I can recall writing stories in the early 1980s about bacteria that eat sulfur and could turn high-sulfur coal into low-sulfur “compliance” coal. Similarly, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I recall writing about how scientists said white rot fungus, commonly seen in wood piles and downed timber, could make a major contribution to cleaning up chemicals at Superfund sites. None of that came to pass.

If it sounds too good to be true, my Pappy used to tell me, it probably is.