Bugs in Termite Guts May Offer Future Fuel Source

Steven Chu looks down the road and sees an America that is free from foreign oil, powered by home-grown genetically engineered fuel that burns cleanly and is as available as the weeds that grow in your garden.

And where does this Nobel laureate get his inspiration? From termites. Or more specifically: the guts of termites.

Chu, who won the Nobel for physics in 1997, isn't claiming that termites can save the world, as one headline recently screamed. But he does believe that the natural processes that allow termites to turn the hard fabric of plant material -- cellulose -- into an ethanol-like fuel hold secrets that could lead to cheap, clean-burning and virtually limitless fuel.

But first, he has to figure out how the termite works its magic.

"I haven't a clue," he says candidly about exactly what goes on in the guts of a termite. "But I'll find out."

Ethanol Made With Less

Chu isn't thinking about building a better mouse trap. He's thinking about building a better termite. Or more precisely, he wants to create a whole new class of microorganisms, tiny microbes that are genetically engineered to produce far more fuel, or ethanol, than they need to survive. They would be tailor-made versions of the microbes that convert cellulose to fuel for termites.

It sounds far out. But this isn't a guy given to daydreaming. He has challenged the prestigious lab he now heads, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, to attack the problem on a multi-disciplinary basis.

"This is Steve's crusade right now," says a colleague. "He feels passionate about it."

Ethanol is a hot-button issue today, and hotly debated, because it can be used as a substitute for gasoline. But there's one serious problem. According to various studies, it takes more energy to extract ethanol from the most common source, corn, than the amount of energy that ends up in the ethanol.

It's a net energy loser, and while the fuel may be relatively clean, the processes required to produce it aren't.

It's "clearly a bad bargain," says one report out of the Berkeley lab.

That's precisely what Chu wants to change.

"We're beginning to sequence the microorganisms in the gut of a termite," he says. Once the genes are identified, the scientists can develop a "chemical understanding of what's really happening in breaking down the cellulose."

Cellulose forms the stiff walls of plant cells, so it is present in all plant material, even the mountains of trash that end up in landfills. It can be broken down, or fermented, by microbes to produce various products, like hydrogen or methanol.

But unfortunately, no microbes produce enough of it to be useful to humans. And that's exactly what Chu wants to change.

Making Mutant Microbes

"If you look at how nature degrades biomaterial, like cellulose, you find that there are microorganisms that make things like ethanol and methane and so on," he says. But these microbes only make enough fuel to satisfy their own needs.

"We can actually begin to take these organisms that do this in nature and get them to make more of the stuff they're already making. This goes beyond normal evolution. So the question is can we stimulate evolution along a particular path?" Chu says.

He thinks the answer is yes.

"We want to make conditions such that the microorganism that is a little more efficient [at degrading cellulose] will be encouraged to survive while the less-efficient ones are not encouraged to survive. Things like this are beginning to happen.

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