Termite guts may hold key to better biofuels

LONDON (Reuters) - The back-end of a termite is an odd place to look to solve the world’s energy crisis but scientists believe the insects’ guts may hold the key to better and cheaper biofuels.

Nasutitermes corniger termite species are shown in this undated handout photo. The back-end of a termite is an odd place to look to solve the world's energy crisis but scientists believe the insects' guts may hold the key to better and cheaper biofuels. REUTERS/Rudolf H. Scheffrahn

Researchers said on Wednesday they had identified a rich reservoir of wood-digesting enzymes exuded by bacteria living in the bellies of termites.

The efficient processes the insects use to turn wood into food could one day be harnessed in factories to transform wood into fuel for transport as an alternative to crops like corn.

The discovery follows a genome-wide analysis of bacteria from the hindgut of the Nasutitermes termite species in Costa Rica, published in the science journal Nature.

Soaring oil prices and concerns about climate change have triggered a boom in biofuels produced from renewable resources like sugar, corn and soybeans.

But making gasoline substitutes from wood -- a plentiful but tougher biomass source -- has so far proved elusive.

Termites, whose voracious appetite for wood causes massive damage to homes worldwide, have no such problems. In fact, their intestines are astonishingly efficient bioreactors, or chemical processing chambers.

Now the secret of how they convert wood into sugars is starting to be unlocked by scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute, the California Institute of Technology and biotechnology company Verenium Corp.

Scientist Falk Warnecke and colleagues used industrial-scale DNA sequencing to show that the guts of termites contain a huge range of bacterial genes responsible for making many previously unknown enzymes.

The next step will be to figure out the precise role of these enzymes and eventually to synthesize them for use in engineering schemes that can convert wood into biofuels, such as hydrogen or ethanol.

The potential is considerable, given the sheer efficiency of the termite’s intestines, which can theoretically turn one sheet of paper into two liters of hydrogen, according to Andreas Brune of the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg, Germany.

“Good food is today being turned into fuel instead of being fed to people. If we could make ethanol from wood waste instead that would clearly be a good thing,” Brune said.

Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Elisabeth O’Leary