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Researchers unearth bioenergy potential in leaf-cutter ant communities
Date:6/14/2013

r ant garden lie in its complexity. A peek into UW-Madison's resident colony in the Microbial Sciences Building reveals a metropolis of brown insects bustling around the pale, pitted surface of the fungus garden, many with leaf sections held aloft. The strong resemblance to a small city drives home the point that energy production in such a meticulously coordinated system would be difficult to replicate in a lab or a bio-refinery.

"In an industrial setting, you need a system that's reproducible, sustainable, controlled and that produces a consistent level of ethanol," Suen says.

A potential alternative to re-creating these natural processes is to extract, replicate and purify biomass-degrading enzymes synthetically. New enzymes could be added to known combinations and tested for their ability to break down biofuel feedstocks. However, this process can be time-consuming and costly.

To put their findings in perspective, the researchers plan to study other insects in addition to ants, including certain species of termites and beetles, which also act as gardeners in fungal communities. They hope that a better understanding of these complex systems will help them share their biomass-degrading secrets with bioenergy researchers.

"It's difficult to think that we can actually find a process that improves on nature," says Aylward, "so it probably makes sense to learn from it."


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Contact: Frank Aylward
faylward@wisc.edu
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Source:Eurekalert

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