17 January 2007

Metagenomics--Will Termite Microbes Wean the World Off Oil?

Metagenomics is the clever art of stealing DNA from one species to use for the benefit of another--namely, us. Presently, humans need a good way to convert cellulose--from plant waste and prolific grasses and woods--into sugars for fermentation to useful alcohols such as butanol and ethanol. Termites have been hosting bacteria that perform that conversion for millions of years. Perhaps we could learn something from termite guts?
Scientists are sequencing the genomes of entire microbial communities in the hope of uncovering new genes and organisms that can create fuel, mine metals, or clean up superfund sites. Known as metagenomics, the field relies on studying bits of DNA from a variety of organisms that live in the same place. Thanks to ever-improving sequencing methods, the number of metagenome projects is growing, giving scientists myriad new genes to explore.

...Converting cellulose in trees and grasses into the simple sugars that can be fermented into ethanol is a very energy-intensive process. "If we had better enzymatic machinery to do that, we might be better able to make sugars into ethanol," Bristow says. "Termites are the world's best bioconverters."

Researchers at the Joint Genome Institute, which sequenced some of the human genome and is now largely devoted to metagenomics, have just finished sequencing the microbial community living in the termite gut. They have already identified a number of novel cellulases--the enzymes that break down cellulose into sugar--and are now looking at the guts of other insects that digest wood, such as an anaerobic population that eats poplar chips. The end result will be "basically a giant parts list that synthetic biologists can put together to make an ideal energy-producing organism," says Hugenholtz.
Source.

So you see, metagenomics may help to break the chokehold of petroleum on the modern global economic infrastructure. And much, much, more.

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