Termites’ digestive system could act as biofuel refinery

Mike Scharf's work with termites has shown that the insects' digestive systems may help break down woody biomass for biofuel production. Credit: Purdue Agricultural Communication photo/Tom Campbell

One of the peskiest household pests, while disastrous to homes, could prove to be a boon for cars, according to a Purdue University study. Mike Scharf, the O. Wayne Rollins/Orkin Chair in Molecular Physiology and Urban Entomology, said his laboratory has discovered a cocktail of enzymes from the guts of termites that may be better at getting around the barriers that inhibit fuel production from woody biomass. The Scharf Laboratory found that enzymes in termite guts are instrumental in the insects’ ability to break down the wood they eat.

The findings, published in the early online version of the journal PLoS One, are the first to measure the sugar output from enzymes created by the termites themselves and the output from symbionts, small protozoa that live in termite guts and aid in digestion of woody material.

“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.”

More here Termites’ digestive system could act as biofuel refinery.

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