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Power your car with termites digestive powers

Last Updated: Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - 16:38

Washington: Soaring oil prices and concerns about climate change have set off a boom in biofuels produced from renewable resources.

Now, a Purdue University study has suggested that one of the peskiest household pests, while disastrous to homes, could prove to be a boon for cars.

Mike Scharf, the O. Wayne Rollins/Orkin Chair in Molecular Physiology and Urban Entomology, said his laboratory has discovered a cocktail of enzymes from the guts of termites that may be better at getting around the barriers that inhibit fuel production from woody biomass. His lab found that enzymes in termite guts are instrumental in the insects`` ability to break down the wood they eat.

The findings are the first to measure the sugar output from enzymes created by the termites themselves and the output from symbionts, small protozoa that live in termite guts and aid in digestion of woody material.

"For the most part, people have overlooked the host termite as a source of enzymes that could be used in the production of biofuels. For a long time it was thought that the symbionts were solely responsible for digestion," said Scharf.

"Certainly the symbionts do a lot, but what we``ve shown is that the host produces enzymes that work in synergy with the enzymes produced by those symbionts. When you combine the functions of the host enzymes with the symbionts, it``s like one plus one equals four,” he added.

Scharf and his research partners separated the termite guts, testing portions that did and did not contain symbionts on sawdust to measure the sugars created.

Once the enzymes were identified, Scharf and his team worked with Chesapeake Perl, a protein production company in Maryland, to create synthetic versions. The genes responsible for creating the enzymes were inserted into a virus and fed to caterpillars, which then produce large amounts of the enzymes. Tests showed that the synthetic versions of the host termite enzymes also were very effective at releasing sugar from the biomass.

"We``ve found a cocktail of enzymes that create sugars from wood," said Scharf.

"We were also able to see for the first time that the host and the symbionts can synergistically produce these sugars,’ added Scharf.

The study has been published in the early online version of the journal PLoS One.


First Published: Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - 16:38

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