Biotech Updates

Termites' Digestive System Could Act as Biofuel Refinery

July 8, 2011

An innovative way of producing sugars from wood found at the guts of termites was recently discovered. The report published in the online version of the journal PLos One and authored by Mike Scharf, the O.Wayne Rollins/Orkin Chair in Molecular Physiology and Urban Entomology at Purdue University, said that a cocktail of enzymes from the guts of termites are produced by small protozoan symbionts living inside the insect's gut.

The three enzymes found in the symbionts were subsequently identified, and genes responsible for creating the enzymes were inserted into a virus and fed to caterpillars. The enzymes were produced in large amounts in the caterpillar, and when tested on biomass released sugars effectively. The three synthetic enzymes function on different parts of the biomass: two for the release of glucose, pentose and two other different sugars, and the other enzyme breaks down lignin, a rigid component of the cell walls.

Further studies will focus on the identification of symbiont enzyme that could be combined with termite enzymes to release the greatest amount of sugars from woody material – an important step in the production of biofuel from plant biomass.

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