That tiny white bug eating holes in your deck, the infamously pesky termite, may someday be responsible for keeping your car running.
Credit for this innovation is due to associate professor of entomology Michael Scharf, who has been studying the insect for the past 12 years. Scharf has translated the termite’s ability to digest wood into a method of producing ethanol.
The key to both processes, termite breakdown of wood and production of biofuel, lies in the guts of termites everywhere, the enzyme cellulase. Cleverly titled, cellulase is responsible for breaking down cellulose – a chain of linked sugars as well as an important structural element in many plants including wood.
“The way it’s done is that you take the gene (cellulase) and it goes into a virus – a safe virus,” explained Scharf. “Then the virus will infect the caterpillar and trick the caterpillar into making tons of termite enzymes.”
The caterpillars containing these useful enzymes are then blended into one big smoothie from which Scharf and his research assistants remove all extra matter until they are left with pure cellulase. Then, wood gets thrown into the mixture and its inherent sugars are extracted by the cellulase. Next, the sugars are fermented and, from termites (and science) comes ethanol.
Although this ethanol has yet to hit the market, Scharf and his students, including research assistant Zachary Karl, are continuing to fine tune their work. They are researching whether this innovative use of termites is more effective than other methods of ethanol production, such as those using fungi and other microorganisms.
“I really think there’s not going to be one solution to the biofuels answer,” Karl said. “It’s going to be a collaboration of different enzymes from different organisms.”
Currently, ethanol comes most commonly from corn. This creates a competition for corn as a food source and as a means of producing ethanol. Scharf cites this as a benefit to his work, his process of ethanol production does not hinder people or animals from eating.
Another benefit of Scharf’s work is that materials like yard waste, which would otherwise be useless, can play an important role. Neighborhood tree trimmings and twigs nationwide may find a new home in cellulase smoothies, where their sugars will break down and eventually become ethanol.
“I’m not claiming we’re going to save the Earth with this, but it would be nice if we could find a way to use what we have and have a more sustainable energy source – it just makes sense,” Scharf said.