Termite Guts

Termite Guts

While you were home stuffing yourself with stuffed fowl and watching college teams on TV, teams of scientists really scored. They took a big step towards getting the bugs that are eating your house to reveal secrets that will power you car.

The November 22nd edition of the journal Nature has articles detailing how “termite guts can save the planet,” as Nobel Laureate Steven Chu put it back in 2005.

Like cows, termites have several bellies; in the third, wood or plant cellulose is converted into simple sugars by enzymes from microbes that live in termite tummies (I hope this hasn’t been too technical). If humans could do that, farm trash could be fermented into ethanol to run your SUV. Interest in insect innards is industrial as well as intellectual.

Scientists on this side of the Atlantic are concentrating on termite microbe DNA, Europeans on observing the behavior and varieties of tiny termite tummy bugs themselves.

Our nation knows fossil fuel supplies are dwindling. Federal and state governments give American farmers subsidies to brew ethanol from edible corn, but these measures have caused an ethanol glut and high corn prices. Jean Ziegler, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, recently called this a “crime against humanity” in a world where millions die of starvation.

 The idea of insect innards as the key to our energy future amuses some; it is life and death for others.


Image by Mike Licht. Hey, what’s this sawdust doing in the back of the closet?

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