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 we
|Contact: David Gilbert|
DOE/Joint Genome Institute