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DOE JGI plumbs termite guts to yield novel enzymes for better biofuel production
Date:11/21/2007

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 o
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Contact: David Gilbert
degilbert@lbl.gov
925-296-5643
DOE/Joint Genome Institute  
Source:Eurekalert

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