Can Termites Save the World?

For years now Mike Scharf has been diving into the guts of termites, trying to figure out how to reproduce their magic. Termites, as every kid knows, can eat their way through a gnarly piece of wood and destroy a new house while the paint is still drying.

They do that by mysteriously converting plant material into fuel to power their complex lifestyles. And they do it better than almost anything else on the planet, especially the pricy, human-made processing plants that are trying to replicate what comes naturally to bugs like termites.

Scharf, an entomologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, is among many scientists around the world who are trying to make the conversion from plant material to ethanol simpler and less expensive. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, half this country's gasoline could be replaced by ethanol if the production could be made more cost effective.

Scientists: Is it Worth it to Convert Plant Material to Ethanol?

With present technology, it takes so much energy to convert plant material to ethanol that many scientists wonder if it's worth it. If they were as clever as termites, it would be a piece of cake. And wouldn't termites be a surprising ally? According to Ohio State University, termites cause about $2 billion in damages across this nation every year. It's about time they came to our aid.

So Scharf and his colleagues have spent a lot of time over the past five years picking termites apart to see exactly what's involved in their dietary process. It turns out that it's a lot. And learning about it is a bit challenging.

"First, you have to be really good at pulling out their guts so you can isolate them from the rest of the body," Scharf said in a telephone interview. "Their gut is about the size of half of our eyelash. So you work under a microscope and you get really good with your hands." After that, it's all biochemistry and molecular biology.

The Florida researchers have isolated 6,555 genes involved in the digestive process of more than 2,500 worker termites. So they now know which genes are important in converting wood's cellulose and lignin into sugar, which can then be converted into ethanol. But the termites can't do it alone.

How Do Termites Eat Through Wood?

The action starts as soon as the wood enters the gut. Enzymes, or protein catalysts, secreted by the termite attack the wood in the first region of the gut.

The wood, more like sawdust at that point, then passes into the mid gut and eventually the hind gut, where it is attacked by a new army of bacteria, single-celled organisms that secrete a different kind of enzymes.

"These enzymes compliment the first ones from the foregut and they all work together to release the sugars that make up the wood," Scharf said. So the bacteria in the gut aren't parasites. They are full partners in the process.

"Parasites would not be paying the rent," Scharf added. "This is a symbiosis process," and the termites give the bacteria - called symbionts - "a home, and the symbionts pay the rent by making other things that the termite needs." So it's a full partnership with no free rides, not even for the bacteria.

Scientists Try to Mass Produce Enzymes

With that understanding, Scharf and his colleagues could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The termites used catalysts, or enzymes, produced by themselves as well as the bacteria to break down the wood into sugar. All they need now is to figure out how to mass produce those enzymes and turn them loose on some non-edible plant material and convert it into ethanol much more efficiently than is possible with present technology.

Termites have already provided the main tools, the genes that control the process in the termites. But termites can be a bit unruly, and they aren't going to end the world's energy woes.

"The first thing people think is we're going to have giant warehouses full of millions and millions of termites," Scharf said. "But that's not true at all." It could make a great horror film, perhaps, but there has to be a better way.

It should be possible, however, to insert the termite genes into another organism that could serve as an organic factory, producing enzymes on demand. It doesn't have to be anything all that sophisticated. Yeast, or fungi, or some bacteria, might do the trick. And no warehouse would be necessary.

"Through biotechnology we can have a transgenic organism that you can just keep in a test tube, or frozen," he added. "Then when you need it you can put it into a bioreactor and it will grow all by itself to a level that you need to do the work.

"These are single-celled organisms and every 20 minutes they go through a life cycle so one becomes two, and two become four, and so on. You do that on a bioreactor scale and you can produce hundreds of kilograms of cells in very little time." And that means gobs of enzymes, ready to go to work.

Is this the answer to our energy woes? Of course not, as Scharf would quickly admit. But it may be a small part of it.

"The odds are against us that this will be a technology that will change the world," he said. "But the way science works is everything happens in small steps. So maybe we will find something that will make the difference, or maybe we've already found something that will get people thinking in a new direction that can turn the tide in favor of cheaper ethanol."

It seems likely that at least some of this type of research will lead us to a better way. The federal government is pumping billions into bio-fuel research, and literally thousands of persons are searching for new answers. And increasingly, they are turning to the least among us, like termites.