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It sounds odd, but termites could hold answers to increasing the world's energy supply. Microbiologist Jorge Rodrigues is sequencing the insect's genome.

A termite might hold the answer to producing enough biofuel to supply the world's unquenchable thirst for energy.

Wood-feeding termites break down a billion tons of plant biomass, or cellulose, every year. "Cellulose is by far the most abundant carbon compound in the world," UT Arlington microbiologist Jorge Rodrigues says.

Unfortunately, humans have not learned how to convert cellulose into individual small molecules to create biofuels.

"We need to find a way to mimic what the termite does," the biology assistant professor says. "If we find out how to do that, that's golden."

A termite is entirely dependent on microbes. Around 98 percent of the insect's food comes from the microbial conversion of wood into acetate, the same organic compound found in vinegar. But figuring out exactly how the industrious little creature destroys all that wood is complicated.

"One tiny droplet of the termite genome has 270 different species of microbes," Dr. Rodrigues says. "And we have no idea how this microbial community works in concert for breaking down the cellulose."

Scientists hope that by sequencing termite genomes they can learn which genes are responsible for the cellulose-to-acetate conversion.

“THE INFORMATION WE GENERATE FROM THESE PROJECTS PROMISES TO IMPROVE THE CLEAN, RENEWABLE ENERGY PATHWAYS BEING DEVELOPED NOW.”

The Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute selected Rodrigues to participate in a highly competitive genome-sequencing project where scientists will probe the hidden world of microbes and plants in search of solutions to the energy crisis and, ultimately, to climate change.

Rodrigues and his research team are sequencing the genome of a micro-organism isolated from a termite's hindgut, Verrucomicrobium sp. strain TAV2. It is known to contain genes coding for novel cellulase and xylanase, enzymes with the capacity to break down cellulose. In addition, this micro-organism has the genetic capability for biological nitrogen fixation and could help with the maintenance of nitrogen balance for the microbial community and its termite partner.

The institute's Community Sequencing Program is the largest genome sequencing effort in the world focused on non-medical organisms.

"The information we generate from these projects promises to improve the clean, renewable energy pathways being developed now, as well as to lend researchers more insight into the global carbon cycle, options for bioremediation, and biogeochemical processes," says Eddy Rubin, director of the institute, headquartered in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Currently, most biofuel, or ethanol, is made from corn, but that may not be sustainable because it removes too much grain from the food supply.

"There have been major riots in Mexico over the skyrocketing price of tortillas, because of steep increases in corn prices," Rodrigues says. "Some farmers are happy about the higher corn prices, but the pig farmers in Wisconsin are not happy at all."

- Sue Stevens