from :

And The Bugs Inside Them
“The greatest mystery of all is found in the worker termite’s third gut, which is delineated by an intricately structured stomach valve, as unique from species to species as individual snowflakes are and, in its way, just as lovely. The size of a sesame seed, the third gut contains a dense mush of symbiotic microbes. Many of these microbes live nowhere else on Earth; they depend on adult termites to pass them on to the young by means of a “woodshake,” a microbial slurry. Recently, sophisticated genetic sequencing produced an inventory of more than 80,000 genes, spanning some 300 microbial species, from the guts of Costa Rican termites. If we could turn wood waste into fuel with even a fraction of the termite’s efficiency, we could run our economy on sawdust, lawn clippings, and old magazines. Last year the Department of Energy founded three Bioenergy Research Centers, which collectively house scientists from seven government labs, 18 universities, and several private companies, and are aimed at making cellulosic ethanol competitive with gasoline within five years. The centers are expected to come up with ideas that can be commercialized—actually making them more like Bell Labs, say, than like the Manhattan Project. Even for people accustomed to avalanches of data, the effort to map the contents of the termite’s third gut is extraordinary. “A disgusting mess of a data set,” says Phil Hugenholtz, the head of the institute’s Microbial Ecology Program. Traditional genomic analysis sequences one organism at a time, but Hugenholtz is a leading practitioner of metagenomics—the new science of sequencing genes from whole environments of microbes at once, and sorting out the resulting jumble of loose DNA code with the aid of computer science, statistics, and biochemistry. Metagenomics is not only breathtakingly fast; it allows us to catalog genes that were previously unknowable because so few types of microorganisms—fewer than 1 percent of all species of bacteria—can be cultured in a lab. Many biologists regard metagenomics as a scientific revolution akin to the invention of the microscope.”

“In the quest to discover novel products, Verenium has pioneered the field of “bioprospecting”. This has enabled the company to tap into the vast genetic resources of the microbial world by venturing into varied and often hostile environments, such as volcanoes and deep sea hydrothermal vents. Because the harsh temperatures and pH conditions in which these “extremophiles” live often mimic conditions found in today’s industrial processes, extremophilic microbes represent a valuable source of potential products.”

“Arctech’s microbes have been bio-engineered from the digestive systems of specially-bred termites, which are unique in their ability to digest the compressed, fossilised plant matter we know as coal.”

“Microorganisms make up an immensely important and often overlooked part of the environment. “They constitute the bulk of our biosphere and underpin all the nutrient cycles on our planet,” says Philip Hugenholtz, leader of the microbial ecology program at the Joint Genome Institute. 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. Several other projects–from whale carcasses to wastewater sludge–are under way or already complete, promising a huge volume of novel genetic data. A recent project at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, identified three new organisms living in the highly acidic environment of abandoned mines. (Bacteria covering the floors of these mines convert iron into acid, which can then pollute nearby streams.) “They are close to the size of viruses and may be the smallest organisms ever discovered,” says Brett Baker, a research scientist at UC Berkeley. These organisms may give clues to other life forms adapted to extreme environments, such as Mars…”

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About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith.

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