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How Termites Help Producing Ethanol From Wood

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Michael Scharf, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and his colleague Aurélien Tartar describe the way that the enzymes produces by termites and the micro-organisms living inside them, or their “symbionts” could help the scientists produce ethanol from straw or wood by providing some basic chemical processes.

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

Because bioethanol production from plant materials such as starch from corn or sugar from sugar cane has been blamed for raising the world food prices lately, other sources of bioethanol have to be found. For example, sugar molecules can be extracted from a lot of other non-edible plants. Though, they are not as accesible as the others, being locked up with a substance known as lignocellulose, which provides structural support for plant cell walls.

Breaking sugars from lignocellulose is a complicated process, and it takes to heat it in combination with acids or bases, and they expose the material to various enzymes. Other methods involve fine grinding and then enzymatic treatment.

The good this about termites is that they can digest the wood and other lignocellulosic material, and extract the sugar from it. It seems they are practicing the same method of grinding and treating with enzymes, such as the scientists, but the enzymes are being produced by them and their symbionts.

Anyway, the study of the termite digestome has really only just begun. “There are many directions that the science can now head,” says Scharf. “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.”

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