Friday, September 12, 2008

Gut reactions

Cellulosic ethanol is ethanol produced from wood, grasses, and/or the (non-edible) parts of plants. As this sort of plant matter (e.g. switchgrass, etc.) is much more abundant than other current sources of ethanol such as sugar cane or corn, cellulosic ethanol could/should be an important source of fuel. However, a roadblock to the increased use of cellulosic ethanol is the fact that although abundant, the cellulose in these plants is difficultly accessible due to a rigid structure that includes lignin. As a result the plant matter has to be broken down and the cellulose 'released' and broken down to simple sugars before it can be converted to ethanol. The steps required to achieve this are difficult and costly.

Wouldn't it be great if an easier way was found to break down this biomass? Well, scientists are looking in a number of potentially fruitful directions. Termites are incredibly efficient (90%) at digesting and breaking down woody fibers, so scientists are examining and cataloging all the bacteria and enzymes present in the termite gut, looking for some that could be commercialized. Similarly, other scientists are looking at the asian longhorn beetle. These beetles are 'pests' that ravage trees, and eradication programs abound. Their guts have yielded fungi that assist with the wood fiber breakdown. Research is ongoing to see if these 'pests' can yield clues and information re how we can greatly improve the processes by which cellulosic ethanol can be produced...

Gut Reactions
Symbioses in the Termite Gut
A Gut Fueling? Termite Bowels May Provide Method for Making Biofuels
Novel fungus helps beetles to digest hard wood