Navigation Links
DOE JGI plumbs termite guts to yield novel enzymes for better biofuel production

WALNUT CREEK, CA --- Termites -- notorious for their voracious appetite for wood, rendering houses to dust and causing billions of dollars in damage per year -- may provide the biochemical means to a greener biofuel future. The bellies of these tiny beasts actually harbor a gold mine of microbes that have now been tapped as a rich source of enzymes for improving the conversion of wood or waste biomass to valuable biofuels.

The genomic sequencing and analysis of the termite gut microbes by the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI), the California Institute of Technology, Verenium Corporation (formerly Diversa), a biofuels company, INBio, the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica, and the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, are highlighted in the November 22 edition of the journal Nature.

"The termite is a remarkable machine," said Dr. Raymond L. Orbach, Under Secretary for Science, U.S. Department of Energy, whose program supports DOE JGI. "Termites can digest a frightening amount of wood in a very short time, as anyone who has had termites in their house is painfully aware. Instead of using harsh chemicals or excess heat to do so, termites employ an array of specialized microbes in their hindguts to break down the cell walls of plant material and catalyze the digestion process. Industrial-scale DNA sequencing by DOE JGI was key to identifying the genetic structures that comprise the tools that termites use. Our task now is to discover the metabolic pathways generated by these structures to figure out how nature digests plant materials. We can then synthesize the novel enzymes discovered through this project to accelerate the delivery of the next generation of cellulosic biofuels."

While termites have been the subject of keen scientific study for more than a century, the precise identity and role of the microbes from their digestive tract remained a mystery. With this new work, the symbiotic orchestration of these compartmentalized, complex microbial communities required for wood digestion is now coming to light.

Like cows, termites have a series of stomachs, each harboring a distinct community of microbes under precisely defined conditions. These bugs within bugs are tasked with particular steps along the conversion pathway of woody polymers to sugars that can then be fermented into fuels such as ethanol. The mandibles of the insect chomp the wood into bits, but the real work is conducted in the dark recesses of the belly, where the enzymatic juices exuded by microbes attack and deconstruct the cellulose and hemicellulose, which, along with lignin, are the basic building blocks of wood.

The tiny insects that gave up their stomach contents to advance the frontiers of science were isolated on a safari into the rainforest of Costa Rica, the world's geographic hotbed of biodiversity for termites, by co-author Jared Leadbetter of Cal Tech, first author Falk Warnecke of DOE JGI's Microbial Ecology Program, and members of Verenium and INBio. Traipsing through the jungle, the team came upon a massive, tumor-like nest of termites clinging to an otherwise nondescript tree. With a flick of a machete, the contents of this dense network of tunnels forged from wood waste were revealed, along with a frenzy of higher termites from the genus Nasutitermes, which are only about the size of the date imprinted on a penny.

Foregoing the funnel-headed "soldiers," the project focused on the larger "workers," with bulbous heads and inflated bellies. In the laboratory of INBio, researchers armed with fine forceps and needles painstakingly extracted the contents of the workers' third paunch or hindgut, referred to as P3, a distended kink in the convoluted plumbing system of the termite. Each sample was barely visible to the naked eye, and care was taken not to contaminate it with material from neighboring stomachs. Contents from 165 specimens were purified, yielding only a few valuable drops -- a veritable microbial mosh pit -- that was sent on ice to Verenium for DNA extraction and preparation, then on to DOE JGI's Walnut Creek (CA) Production Genomics Facility for sequencing.

From the sample, about 71 million letters of fragmented genetic code were elaborated and computationally reassembled, like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, to tease out the identities of the microbial players in the mixture and the metabolic profile of the enzymes that they produce. From this reconstructed liquid puzzle emerged the identities of a dozen different phyla -- broad groupings of microbial life forms.

"Our analysis revealed that the hindgut is dominated by two major bacterial lineages, treponemes and fibrobacters," said co-author Phil Hugenholtz, DOE JGI's Microbial Ecology Program head. "Treponemes have long been recognized in the termite gut due to their distinctive cork-screw shape, but fibrobacters were an exciting new find, because they have relatives in the cow rumen known to degrade cellulose. We could directly link the termite fibrobacters and treponemes to enzymes capable of breaking down wood. However, fibrobacters are specialists in this regard and don't appear to participate in sugar fermentation, leaving that to the treponemes. This project has really given me a new appreciation for the lowly termite, a mobile miniature bioreactor."

In the termite P3 compartment alone, more than 500 genes related to the enzymatic deconstruction of cellulose and hemicellulose were identified by Hugenholtz and colleagues. This dataset has since been uploaded by DOE JGI onto its metagenome data management and analysis system, IMG/M ( for public access and further analysis.

"Adapting these findings for an industrial-scale system is far from easy," said Eddy Rubin, JGI Director. "Termites can efficiently convert milligrams of lignocellulose into fermentable sugars in their tiny bioreactor hindguts. Scaling up this process so that biomass factories can produce biofuels more efficiently and economically is another story. To get there, we must define the set of genes with key functional attributes for the breakdown of cellulose, and this study represents an essential step along that path."

Nature paper first author Falk Warnecke is a postdoctoral fellow in the Hugenholtz lab. Other DOE JGI authors include Natalia Ivanova, Rotem Sorek, Susannah Tringe, Hector Garcia Martin, Victor Kunin, Daniel Dalevi, Julita Madejska, Edward Kirton, Darren Platt, Ernest Szeto, Asaf Salamov, Kerrie Barry, Natalia Mikhailova, Nikos Kyrpides, and Director Rubin.

These findings follow on the heels of the announcement by DOE Secretary Samuel Bodman in June that DOE will invest up to $375 million in three new Bioenergy Research Centers ( to accelerate basic research in the development of cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels. DOE JGI will conduct genome sequencing in support of these centers.

The termite hindgut whodunit builds upon DOE JGI's pioneering "metagenomic" research, where genetic material is isolated, identified, and characterized directly from environmental samples, providing a profile of a particular (often extreme) ecological niche. Published investigations by DOE JGI include glimpses into such diverse slices of the biosphere as acid mine drainage, a gutless worm, farm soil, submerged whalebones, and sewage sludge.

Currently among the scores of projects in the sequencing queue at DOE JGI are metagenomes from contents of the Tammar wallaby forestomach, the Asian longhorned beetle gut, and other exotic species that promise to be treasure troves of enzymes involved in cellulose deconstruction. These targets were submitted through DOE JGI's Community Sequencing Program (CSP), which provides the scientific community with access to high-throughput sequencing for projects of relevance to DOE missions.


Contact: David Gilbert
DOE/Joint Genome Institute  

Related biology technology :

1. Verenium Explores Bacterial Genes Inside Termite Guts to Understand How Wood is Broken Down and Converted to Energy
2. Sigma-Aldrich (Nasdaq: SIAL) Q3 2007 Sales Increase 14.0%, Yielding Diluted EPS of $.54.
3. Novel Technology Breaks Through Cancer Pain
4. ThromboGenics Announces Successful Completion of Technology Transfer to Bharat Biotech for Production of Novel Thrombolytic Agent
5. XTL Biopharmaceuticals Announces Presentation of Novel Pre-Clinical Inhibitors of Hepatitis C at an Upcoming International Scientific Conference
6. Novel Angiogenic Drugs, Including a Future Blockbuster from Genzyme, Could Revolutionize Treatment of Peripheral Arterial Disease
7. New Licence for Cubicin(R) (daptomycin), the First in a Novel Class of Antibiotic, is Announced Today for the Treatment of Serious Bloodstream and Heart Infections Caused by the Most Problematic UK Organisms, Including MRSA
8. NIST team develops novel method for nanostructured polymer thin films
9. GlaxoSmithKline Awarded U.S. Department of Defense Contract to Pursue Novel Antibacterial Research Program
10. Arpida Invited to Present Preclinical Data on Novel Topical Antibiotic AR-2474 at ICAAC
11. European Expert Consortium Combines Forces to Develop a Novel Pandemic Influenza Vaccine
Post Your Comments:
Related Image:
DOE JGI plumbs termite guts to yield novel enzymes for better biofuel production
(Date:10/9/2015)... Oct. 9, 2015  Pulmatrix, Inc., (NASDAQ: PULM ) ... investor conferences. th Annual BIO Investor ... (2:00 pm EDT). --> th Annual ... am PDT (2:00 pm EDT). --> Pulmatrix ... Growth Stock Conference on Thursday, October 15, 2015 at 8:30 ...
(Date:10/9/2015)... ... October 09, 2015 , ... Leading microbial genomics startup uBiome today ... understand the relationship between weight management and the microbiome. The study uses the ResearchKit ... using an iPhone app. , The uBiome app is available as a free download ...
(Date:10/8/2015)... Fla. , Oct. 8, 2015   Intrexon ... synthetic biology, today announced the appointment of Joseph ... Environment Sector, succeeding Nir Nimrodi who continues ... Vaillancourt will direct Intrexon,s endeavors to generate sustainable, biologically ... America , where he held a variety of ...
(Date:10/8/2015)... , Oct. 8, 2015  Genetic testing for mutations ... the identification of more couples at risk of having ... presented today at the 2015 American Society of Human ... in Baltimore, Maryland . The study ... (NYSE: DGX ) are presenting at the conference ...
Breaking Biology Technology:
... of Wisconsin - Madison spinout company that utilizes ... investors in Madison and throughout the state of Wisconsin. ... and controllers for nanoscale research and manufacturing. , ,nPoint ... image, measure, and move objects at the sub-molecular level. ...
... Washington, DC, think tank slammed Wisconsins efforts at implementing ... could raise that score, according to the states CIO, ... Department of Administration (DOA) after the Department of ... the Center for Economic Development (CFED) missed ...
... partners feel good about doing business and working together ... of Inacom Information Systems , a Madison-based Information ... Inacom were recently recognized and awarded the Presidents Award ... in a row. According to Ingram Micro, the recipient ...
Cached Biology Technology:
(Date:9/26/2015)... 2015  Results of a TactioRPM pilot project ... at the Stanford Medicine X Conference. In a ... Connected Health Devices and Pharmacogenomics", Roger Simard ... explain how senior patients equipped with connected health ... via the TactioRPM remote patient monitoring platform were ...
(Date:9/24/2015)... September 24, 2015 ... 2015 Kerv ( ... lanserar idag världens första kontaktlösa betalningsring på ... 77 000 GBP för massproduktion via crowdfunding.  ... ) , Kerv-bärare kan göra ...
(Date:9/10/2015)... , Sept. 10, 2015 Report ... New Study Reveals Selling Opportunities and Revenue Prospects ... the future of biologics, especially new drug classes? ... will stay ahead with exclusive market data and ... explore trends, developments, results, opportunities and sales predictions. ...
Breaking Biology News(10 mins):
... Dr. Herman Scholthof, professor of plant pathology and microbiology at ... Society Fellow. , Scholthof, who also ... honor during the society,s annual meeting Aug. 4 in Portland, ... "distinguised contributions to plant pathology" or to the society. ...
... Dr. Brian Shaw, Texas A&M University assistant professor of plant ... honor based on quality, originality and quantity of published ... Award of the Mycological Society of America. Shaw has ... years. Both the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department ...
... restoration of a 2,000-year-old bronze sculpture of the famed ... how to prevent metal corrosion, discover the safest ways ... problems. That,s the conclusion of a new study on ... issue of ACS, Crystal Growth & Design , ...
Cached Biology News:
... Software reads and processes raw ... microarray data for analysis. ... one 2-year license for Feature ... , * one CD-ROM ...
... imported for data analysis , Automatic grid, subgrid ... template assignment , ... Extensive background and signal options to optimize, ... results , ...
... DNA Gel Stain combo offers these benefits: ... products separately Offers a ... Eliminates risks to yourself, the environment ... from 100 bp to >30 kb. UltraPure Agarose is ...
... stocks contained in standard 96-well microtiter plates. ... approximately 5,000 clones per plate. After positive ... the corresponding subplate is screened with a ... well(s). Cells from a positive well are ...
Biology Products: