Despite the small size of the termite gut and the difficulty in analysing its contents, a few research groups have attempted to study what Scharf and Tartar call the termite digestome. This is the pool of genes, both termite and symbiont, that code for the enzymes that break down and digest lignocellulosic material.
Using a variety of genomic and proteomic techniques, these groups have managed to identify a number of the main enzymes, many of which could prove useful for producing ethanol. This work has already provided strong preliminary evidence that the enzymes produced by the termites and their symbionts tend to work collaboratively, with the lignocellulosic material having to be partially digested by termite enzymes before it can be further digested by symbiont enzymes.
But the study of the termite digestome has really only just begun. "There are many directions that the science can now head," says Scharf. "First, we now have the ability to produce and test individual enzymes for their competency and roles in lignocellulose degradation. Once we identify major players (from termites and symbionts), we can test combinations that may have applications in making bioethanol production more feasible from existing feedstocks, and maybe even other feedstocks that aren't on our radar screens yet."
This kind of digestome analysis could also be applied to other insects that feed on woody material, such as wood-boring beetles, and certain wasps and flies, Scharf adds.
|Contact: Jennifer Beal|