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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Can Termites Save the World?

Air Date: Week of

Formosan subterranean termites. (Courtesy of USDA)

Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman reports on a new frontier in the search for clean biofuels. Scientists are investigating the guts of termites and other animals for microbes and enzymes that can help break down wood and other plant material.


CURWOOD: Termites. They can be really bad news if you live in a wooden home, but as scientists search for solutions to the challenge of climate change, termites might emerge as the good guys, along with an unusual plant that grows like a weed. Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman explains.

GELLERMAN: In 1997 Steven Chu shared the Nobel Prize in physics by thinking small, using lasers to trap and cool atoms. Today, Chu is director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. He’s switched fields to molecular biology and now he’s thinking big, very big.

CHU: Oh we want to save the world, ha, ha, ha.

GELLERMAN: Chu wants to save the world from global warming and he and colleagues from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne, Stanford University, and CalTech plan to do it in part with plants.

Corn and sugar cane can already be converted into ethanol which can be used in cars. But it takes a lot of energy and land to grow, harvest, and convert these foods into fuel. Chu and company have a different idea. Instead of using expensive crops which don’t give you much bang for your buck they want to distill ethanol from agricultural wastes, things like wood chips and a fast growing, tropical grass called Miscanthus. Chu calls miscanthus a miracle weed. On one experimental field 2500 gallons of ethanol were distilled from a single acre. That’s nearly three times what you get from corn.

CHU: This is a weed to behold. Miscanthus grows to 14 feet. It’s a perennial crop. Chop it off at the bottom and next year it’s 14 feet. Pretty good stuff!

"Miscanthus growth over a single growing season in Illinois." (Courtesy of U.S. DOE)

GELLERMAN: And Miscanthus doesn’t need much water, fertilizer, or pesticides and it’s carbon neutral- it produces no extra green house gases. Chu says, it can be grown on millions of acres of fallow agricultural land. He believes making ethanol from ag. waste and plants like Miscanthus can replace two thirds of the gasoline used in the U.S. There’s just one problem.

CHU: Ah right now it’s too expensive to convert.

GELLERMAN: The materials in miscanthus that Chu wants to convert into ethanol are cellulose and lignin, the woody stuff that makes plants hard. Nature deliberately makes it difficult to break down these strong substances and turn them into starch which can then be distilled. But nature also has things that can help, things like termites. That’s right termites. The pests that can eat you out of house and home.

SIMON: The termites are fantastic. We went through Africa and saw these huge termites. These guys are working like mad.

GELLERMAN: Melvin Simon, professor emeritus at CalTech thinks termites can help save the world because they can do what we can’t. When we eat cellulose we call it dietary fiber. It passes right through us. But when termites eat cellulose they call it dinner because in the termites gut are microorganisms that produce enzymes, chemicals that can break down the cellulose, again, Mel Simon

SIMON: You know what happens when the termite is born. The little baby termite hatches? It hasn’t got these enzymes, the mother regurgitates a little bit of stuff and the babies sucks that up and gets itself inoculated with the enzymes it’s going to need to make its food. Isn’t that great? (laughs)

Formosan subterranean termites. (Courtesy of USDA)

GELLERMAN: But it takes a lot of termites a long time to chew through a two by four says Simon. As good as the enzymes in the bugs’ guts are at digesting cellulose, they’re too slow for industrial purposes.

SIMON: That’s the problem. Biology isn’t in a hurry. Biology has lots of time. So there are some problems speeding up the rate at which catalysts work. That’s not a simple process.

GELLERMAN: But scientists like Mel Simon are experimenting with modifying the bugs in termite guts to speed them up and they’ve got a new genetic tool to help them find promising microbes. Chris Somerville is a researcher from Stanford University and Carnegie Institution:

SOMERVILLE: Organizations are now going out into nature and identifying all kinds of environments, such as termite guts and the ruminant of cattle, and forest floors, and composite heaps where microorganisms are known to exist who live on breaking down cellulose into sugars. And now they’re determining the DNA sequence and analyzing the gene structure of these organisms to identify new types of enzymes that might be more efficient at this.

GELLERMAN: Professor Somerville is investigating how to make the cellulose in plants like Miscanthus easier to break down. Somerville’s work and those of his colleagues, Nobel Laureate Steven Chu and Melvin Simon, is funded by a 500 million dollar grant from BP Oil Company. President Bush has proposed 180 million dollars for biofuel research next year. But Somerville says it will be the profit motive not government that will drive new biofuel R&D:

SOMERVILLE: I actually believe it’s going to be possible to create a biofuels industry on a very large scale fundamentally without the government. I think that the participation of the world’s energy companies is the key ingredient.

GELLERMAN: Chris Somerville predicts you could be putting the stuff produced from termite guts eating exotic plants into the tank of your car within ten or 12 years.

For Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman



Mel Simon's company: Diversa Corporation

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Miscanthus research at the University of Illinois


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