Termites Could Help Produce Cellulosic Ethanol

Cindy Zimmerman

The ability of termites to digest wood may hold a key to advancing the production of cellulosic ethanol from woody biomass.

Researchers at the University of Florida have been working on genetic sequencing to harness the insects’ ability to churn wood into fuel. That ability involves a mixture of enzymes from symbiotic bacteria and other single-celled organisms living in termites’ guts, as well as enzymes from the termites themselves, which could ultimately improve the production of cellulosic ethanol.

“Termites are very unique creatures, and this research helps give the most complete picture of how their systems collaborate to, very efficiently, break down really tough biological compounds to release fermentable sugars,” said UF entomologist Mike Scharf, who leads the research.

The team has identified nearly 200 associated enzymes that help break down the problematic plant compound lignocellulose. This compound is the most costly barrier to wide-scale production of cellulosic ethanol because it must be broken down by intense heat or caustic chemicals. Termites, however, are able to almost completely break down lignocellulose through simple digestion.

Once the genetic sequence that produces the enzymes can be isolated, it could be transferred into genetically modified fungi or bacteria, or possibly into other insects, such as caterpillars, to produce the enzymes on an industrial scale.

Cellulosic, Research