Bugs in Termite Guts May Offer Future Fuel Source

"So now imagine an organism that has to survive by making hydrogen or methane. And you alter the conditions so you are asking it to make more and more of the stuff. You can do this in gradual steps. I want a certain property, and in order to survive it has to make this property. Gobs of methane. Not just a little bit."

That might be done by selective breeding, like that used to produce faster racehorses or better corn, or by inserting a special code into the DNA of the microbe.

"You can actually insert into the genome of the microorganism a set of genes that will allow it to do the chemistry you want. It's called synthetic biology," Chu says. "You can insert the entire chemical cycle that you want into this organism."

That would require maintaining a careful balance, because the microbes probably won't be all too happy about this.

"They are not really feeling so well because they are making something they don't really want to make," Chu says. "They don't really want to make it, but they're making it. If they make too much of it they're going to die because they're not making enough of the other stuff that they need to live. So it's a threshold thing. You want them to be healthy and multiply but you also want them to do what we want them to do."

Fears of Frankenstein?

Chu knows not everybody out there is going to be comfortable with this approach to energy salvation.

"This has sort of a Frankenstein air to it," he admits. "In principal you could have a situation where microorganisms go berserk , but there could be ways around that."

The microbes could be programmed, for instance, to die if they ever escape.

"You can imagine doing something where they can only survive in a very artificial environment," he says, but he knows some critics won't be content with that.

"There are always people who are going to be upset about this because quite frankly it's really new, they don't understand it, and it's scary."

For the record, Chu is not out there all by himself on this. Other institutions, including the University of Colorado, the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and others, are making headway on the same issues.

It will take awhile, of course, but Chu's timetable is more optimistic than some.

"This is a 10- to 20-year project," he says.

If he's on the right track, someday the world might be free of energy shortages, and wars over oil, and soaring prices at the gas pump. And we might have a cleaner environment.

That's enough to give a termite something to chew on.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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