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    A project to build a 130 million euro ($172 million) plant to produce 200,000 cubic metres of bioethanol annually was announced by three German groups on Tuesday. The plant will consume about 600,000 tonnes of wheat annually and when operational in the first half of 2009 should provide about a third of Germany's estimated bioethanol requirements. Reuters - Feb. 27, 2007.

    Taiwan's Ministry of Economic Affairs has announced that government vehicles in Taipei City will begin using E3 fuel, composed of 97% gasoline and 3% ethanol, on a trial basis in 2007. Automotive World - Feb. 27, 2007.

    Spanish company Ferry Group is to invest €42/US$55.2 million in a project for the production of biomass fuel pellets in Bulgaria. The 3-year project consists of establishing plantations of paulownia trees near the city of Tran. Paulownia is a fast-growing tree used for the commercial production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Hungary's BHD Hõerõmû Zrt. is to build a 35 billion Forint (€138/US$182 million) commercial biomass-fired power plant with a maximum output of 49.9 MW in Szerencs (northeast Hungary). Portfolio.hu - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Tonight at 9pm, BBC Two will be showing a program on geo-engineering techniques to 'save' the planet from global warming. Five of the world's top scientists propose five radical scientific inventions which could stop climate change dead in its tracks. The ideas include: a giant sunshade in space to filter out the sun's rays and help cool us down; forests of artificial trees that would breath in carbon dioxide and stop the green house effect and a fleet futuristic yachts that will shoot salt water into the clouds thickening them and cooling the planet. BBC News - Feb. 19, 2007.

    Archer Daniels Midland, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, is planning to open a biodiesel plant in Indonesia with Wilmar International Ltd. this year and a wholly owned biodiesel plant in Brazil before July, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The Brazil plant is expected to be the nation's largest, the paper said. Worldwide, the company projects a fourfold rise in biodiesel production over the next five years. ADM was not immediately available to comment. Reuters - Feb. 16, 2007.

    Finnish engineering firm Pöyry Oyj has been awarded contracts by San Carlos Bioenergy Inc. to provide services for the first bioethanol plant in the Philippines. The aggregate contract value is EUR 10 million. The plant is to be build in the Province of San Carlos on the north-eastern tip of Negros Island. The plant is expected to deliver 120,000 liters/day of bioethanol and 4 MW of excess power to the grid. Kauppalehti Online - Feb. 15, 2007.

    In order to reduce fuel costs, a Mukono-based flower farm which exports to Europe, is building its own biodiesel plant, based on using Jatropha curcas seeds. It estimates the fuel will cut production costs by up to 20%. New Vision (Kampala, Uganda) - Feb. 12, 2007.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has decided to use 10% biodiesel in its fleet of public buses. The world's largest city is served by the Toei Bus System, which is used by some 570,000 people daily. Digital World Tokyo - Feb. 12, 2007.

    Fearing lack of electricity supply in South Africa and a price tag on CO2, WSP Group SA is investing in a biomass power plant that will replace coal in the Letaba Citrus juicing plant which is located in Tzaneen. Mining Weekly - Feb. 8, 2007.

    In what it calls an important addition to its global R&D capabilities, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is to build a new bioenergy research center in Hamburg, Germany. World Grain - Feb. 5, 2007.

    EthaBlog's Henrique Oliveira interviews leading Brazilian biofuels consultant Marcelo Coelho who offers insights into the (foreign) investment dynamics in the sector, the history of Brazilian ethanol and the relationship between oil price trends and biofuels. EthaBlog - Feb. 2, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan has announced its renewable energy target: 12% of all energy should come from renewables by 2020. The plan is expected to revitalise Taiwan's agricultural sector and to boost its nascent biomass industry. China Post - Feb. 2, 2007.

    Production at Cantarell, the world's second biggest oil field, declined by 500,000 barrels or 25% last year. This virtual collapse is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos. Wall Street Journal - Jan. 30, 2007.

    Dubai-based and AIM listed Teejori Ltd. has entered into an agreement to invest €6 million to acquire a 16.7% interest in Bekon, which developed two proprietary technologies enabling dry-fermentation of biomass. Both technologies allow it to design, establish and operate biogas plants in a highly efficient way. Dry-Fermentation offers significant advantages to the existing widely used wet fermentation process of converting biomass to biogas. Ame Info - Jan. 22, 2007.

    Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited is to build a biofuel production plant in the tribal belt of Banswara, Rajasthan, India. The petroleum company has acquired 20,000 hectares of low value land in the district, which it plans to commit to growing jatropha and other biofuel crops. The company's chairman said HPCL was also looking for similar wasteland in the state of Chhattisgarh. Zee News - Jan. 15, 2007.

    The Zimbabwean national police begins planting jatropha for a pilot project that must result in a daily production of 1000 liters of biodiesel. The Herald (Harare), Via AllAfrica - Jan. 12, 2007.

    In order to meet its Kyoto obligations and to cut dependence on oil, Japan has started importing biofuels from Brazil and elsewhere. And even though the country has limited local bioenergy potential, its Agriculture Ministry will begin a search for natural resources, including farm products and their residues, that can be used to make biofuels in Japan. To this end, studies will be conducted at 900 locations nationwide over a three-year period. The Japan Times - Jan. 12, 2007.

    Chrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint has launched an arrogant attack on "quasi-hysterical Europeans" and their attitudes to global warming, calling the Stern Review 'dubious'. The remarks illustrate the yawning gap between opinions on climate change among Europeans and Americans, but they also strengthen the view that announcements by US car makers and legislators about the development of green vehicles are nothing more than window dressing. Today, the EU announced its comprehensive energy policy for the 21st century, with climate change at the center of it. BBC News - Jan. 10, 2007.

    The new Canadian government is investing $840,000 into BioMatera Inc. a biotech company that develops industrial biopolymers (such as PHA) that have wide-scale applications in the plastics, farmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Plant-based biopolymers such as PHA are biodegradable and renewable. Government of Canada - Jan. 9, 2007.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Film: Towards the Bio-based Economy

The following short film offers a basic overview of what our post-oil future will look like. Towards the Bio-based Economy shows how most products we use on a daily basis - from fuels, medicines, and Euro banknotes, to washing powder and plastics - can be made from biomass. For almost all petroleum-based products, a plant-based variant has already been found.

'Green chemistry' and the concept of the 'biorefinery' are the key words for this future: through biotechnology, any given stream of biomass can be taken apart and converted into a range of efficient, climate-neutral, biodegradable and renewable products.

The bio-based economy is founded on the idea of a closed loop, a green cycle, the cradle-to-cradle philosophy: instead of polluting our environment and depleting scarce resources, we will be producing plant-based products that are food and fertiliser for new crops.

The (promo) film was produced for the Ghent Bioenergy Valley, an integrated science and research cluster based in Belgium, working on innovative biofuels and plant-based products.

If the film does not load in your browser, please find it here or at the Ghent Bio-Energy Valley's website (link will open in Windows media player) [entry ends here].
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Global warming fuels stronger Atlantic hurricanes - new evidence

Atmospheric scientists have uncovered fresh evidence to support the hotly debated theory that global warming has contributed to the emergence of stronger hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.

The unsettling trend is confined to the Atlantic, however, and does not hold up in any of the world's other oceans, researchers have also found.

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported the finding in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The work should help resolve some of the controversy that has swirled around two prominent studies that drew connections last year between global warming and the onset of increasingly intense hurricanes.

"The debate is not about scientific methods, but instead centers around the quality of hurricane data," says lead author James Kossin, a research scientist at UW-Madison's Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. "So we thought, 'Lets take the first step toward resolving this debate.'"

The inconsistent nature of hurricane data has been a sore spot within the hurricane research community for decades. Before the advent of weather satellites, scientists were forced to rely on scattered ship reports and sailor logs to stay abreast of storm conditions. The advent of weather satellites during the 1960s dramatically improved the situation, but the technology has changed so rapidly that newer satellite records are barely consistent with older ones.

Kossin and his colleagues realized they needed to smooth out the data before exploring any interplay between warmer temperatures and hurricane activity. Working with an existing NCDC archive that holds global satellite information for the years 1983 through 2005, the researchers evened out the numbers by essentially simplifying newer satellite information to align it with older records:
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"This new dataset is unlike anything that's been done before," says Kossin. "It's going to serve a purpose as being the only globally consistent dataset around. The caveat of course, is that it only goes back to 1983."

Even so, it's a good start. Once the NCDC researchers recalibrated the hurricane figures, Kossin took a fresh look at how the new numbers on hurricane strength correlate with records on warming ocean temperatures, a side effect of global warming.

What he found both supported and contradicted previous findings. "The data says that the Atlantic has been trending upwards in hurricane intensity quite a bit," says Kossin. "But the trends appear to be inflated or spurious everywhere else, meaning that we still can't make any global statements."

Sea-surface temperatures may be one reason why greenhouse gases are exacting a unique toll on the Atlantic Ocean, says Kossin. Hurricanes need temperatures of around 27 degrees Celsius (81 degrees Fahrenheit) to gather steam. On average, the Atlantic's surface is slightly colder than that but other oceans, such as the Western Pacific, are naturally much warmer.

"The average conditions in the Atlantic at any given time are just on the cusp of what it takes for a hurricane to form," says Kossin. " So it might be that imposing only a small (man-made) change in conditions, creates a much better chance of having a hurricane."

The Atlantic is also unique in that all the physical variables that converge to form hurricanes — including wind speeds, wind directions and temperatures — mysteriously feed off each other in ways that only make conditions more ripe for a storm. But scientists don't really understand why, Kossin adds.

"While we can see a correlation between global warming and hurricane strength, we still need to understand exactly why the Atlantic is reacting to warmer temperatures in this way, and that is much more difficult to do," says Kossin. "We need to be creating models and simulations to understand what is really happening here. From here on, that is what we should be thinking about."

More information:
Kossin, J. P.; Knapp, K. R.; Vimont, D. J.; Murnane, R. J.; Harper, B. A. "A globally consistent reanalysis of hurricane variability and trends" [*abstract], Geophys. Res. Lett., Vol. 34, No. 4, 28 February 2007

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Global warming may lead to mass extinction of Brazil species - Brazilian biofuels to the rescue?

What can now be called 'the Brazilian dilemma' is becoming ever sharper. New studies show that global warming may make a far larger number of Brazil's enormously diverse plant and animal species go extinct, than previously thought. At the same time, Brazil is the leader in the production of climate-neutral biofuels the use of which does precisely what is needed: to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions responsible for global warming. However, large-scale biofuel production itself affects the biodiversity of ecosystems, because it is mostly based on monocultures.

The difficult question then becomes: would the potential biodiversity loss arising from a massive expansion of Brazil's biofuels sector be offset by the solution these fuels bring to reducing global warming, which threatens to cause a mass extinction of species? Or in other words, what would be the effects on the largest and most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet, if the world were not to use Brazilian biofuels on a large scale? There is no easy answer to that dilemma.

But some recent findings from Brazil's long experience with biofuels might help:
  • Scientists have found that ethanol production as it is currently undertaken in Brazil is largely environmentally "sustainable" (earlier post and Nature's take on the matter).
  • Sugarcane based ethanol made in Brazil has an excellent energy balance, compared to biofuels made from crops grown in temperate climates. The energy yield per hectare is many times that of corn or canola or even the grass and tree species many are hoping will feed the 'second generation' of cellulose-based biofuels (such as switchgrass or hybrid poplar) (earlier post). The same logic holds for other tropical crops such as sweet sorghum, sweet potatos or cassava.
  • Research indicates that (solid and liquid) biofuels produced in the Global South can be transported over large distances to industrial markets (North America, Europe, North-East Asia) efficiently, that is, without needing too much energy and without contributing too much carbon emissions (earlier post).
  • A rapid and large expansion of the sector in Brazil may indeed threaten the biodiversity of ecosystems, even though the country's Ministry for the Environment claims this will not be the case. EMBRAPA, the Environmental Agency of Brazil, has more than once said that future biofuel plantations will only rely on 'excess' pasture-land and that the expansion scheme will not result in added deforestation (earlier post, and here).
  • Finally, the past trend of technological and scientific breakthroughs that led to considerable efficiency increases in feedstock and fuel production, is set to continue. Analists have shown Brazil's biofuels industry reduced costs and increased efficiency by up to 75% in under 3 decades (earlier post). Following the trend and given advances cellulosic ethanol research, which can be obviously be applied to Brazil's energy efficient crops (earlier post), by 2025, a hectare of sugarcane may yield twice as much useable fuels than today, increasing the energy balance even further (earlier post).
Given these facts, it may be tempting to replicate Brazil's biofuels experience in other countries in the tropics and the subtropics. There, green fuels for transport and for power generation can be produced on a large scale, supply world markets, replace fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gases substantially. Scientists are analysing the pros and cons of such a proposal (earlier post). But Brazil's biodiversity dilemma will hold in these countries too.

Sustainability criteria

The key element in the dilemma is the sustainability of the biofuels in question. Most stakeholders agree (earlier post) that it is crucial for governments to set clear criteria that correct the purely commercial rationale behind many current investments in and targets for biofuels. Some green fuels - such as solid biomass for the production of power - have already become cheaper than fossil fuels (earlier post), and with 'Peak Oil & Gas' becoming a reality, the trend is set to continue.

But obviously, if the production of biofuels results in more greenhouse gas emissions than their use offsets, they do not deserve a 'green' label and they become highly problematic. This would be the case if, for example, deforestation or the destruction of peatlands and wetlands is stimulated by the push to establish monoculture energy plantations:
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Careful sustainability criteria can be established to prevent this. Such rules would look at the total lifecycle of the biofuels - from farm to fuel - and analyse the greenhouse gas balance, the energy balance, the impact of their production on the environment and its biodiversity, and their social impacts.

Some individual governments (like the government of the Netherlands) are trying to establish such rules, even though they would only make a dent if they are applied on a regional (EU-wide) or a global scale. Different 'cultures of sustainability' exist, even though the basic principles of the concept have been agreed upon. Still, some countries that are large potential biofuel producers and exporters are making a hard case and are warning that such criteria should not act as a non-tariff trade barrier (earlier post and here).

Another possible option in the quest for sustainability consists of offering financial incentives to developing countries to halt further deforestation and biodiversity losses which result from agricultural expansion. A concept such as 'compensated reduction' (also known as 'avoided deforestation'), which couples the value of forests to the amount of carbon they store, is currently being studied both by governments, NGOs and international institutions such as the World Bank (earlier post). The problem with this idea, however, is that the real opportunity costs of forests are the biofuels they could potentially produce (earlier post).
Biofuels may represent a far greater economic value than the carbon value of forests. After all, both carbon and fossil fuel prices are driven by the free market, even though governments set the caps for carbon. The difference is that fossil fuels may become much scarcer far faster than affordable carbon emission credits, opening a gap favoring investments in biofuels. Moreover, the effects of a physical scarcity of fossil fuels - most notably petroleum - will have immediate and far reaching socio-economic impacts that have to be mitigated instantly or that can be heged by investments in biofuels. The threat of global warming is perceived to be much more abstract, less immediately threatening to particular interests and too distant.

Finally, thorough socio-economic analyses are urgently needed to study the changes brought by a massive switch to biofuels such as the ones produced in Brazil. Bioenergy production offers an opportunity to revive or reboot the agricultural sector, which, in the South, employs more people than any other sector. Depreciating world prices for agricultural commodities and unfair trade regimes have plagued millions of these farmers in the past, pushing them to the brink of poverty. From this poverty result further pressures on the environment, because poor farmers do not have the means to utilize the most basic of modern agricultural inputs. Instead of relying on intensive forms agriculture, they use techniques that result in extremely low productivities. The consequence: ever more land is needed to grow crops for basic needs.

Studies are needed to show how incomes generated from modern, well-invested export-oriented biofuel production - both on the level of the state as well as on the level of individual farming communities - can change this situation. After developing countries have first met their very modest demand for fuels themselves (most can easily replace all their fossil fuel imports with locally produced biofuels), they have a huge capacity left to supply world markets with competitive bioenergy (earlier post). This economic opportunity is set to transform the South and its millions of poor farmers.

The Brazilian dilemma
Let us now look at the studies on the threat global warming brings to Brazil's unique biodiversity, as they are reported by Scientific American. According to studies released on Tuesday, a vast number of animal and plant species in Brazil could die out as rising world temperatures cause more droughts, disease and rainstorms in areas like the Pantanal wetlands and Amazon rainforest.

"All our efforts to protect our biodiversity could be lost," Environment Minister Marina Silva said at an event to publicize the new research coordinated by the ministry and carried out by university, private and government scientists.

Brazil is believed to be home to roughly a fifth of all plant and animal species and the government has invested $142 million (300 million reais) since 2003 to preserve vast swathes of land in areas like the Amazon, Environmental Secretary Joao Capobianco said.

But rising global temperatures could undermine conservation efforts. The broadest study, conducted by Brazilian space agency INPE, found that temperatures in the Amazon -- the world's largest remaining tropical rainforest -- could rise as much 8 degrees Celsius (14 F) this century.

Other studies predicted fish species could die out if rising ocean levels flood southern islands and estuaries with salt water. Further inland, the Pantanal wetlands could dry up and turn to savannah as hotter temperatures affect rains.

Prime agricultural areas in southern and southeastern Brazil are already suffering more intense downpours after temperatures rose almost 1 degree Celsius (2 F) in the last century, the INPE study said.

Extreme weather events could increase in general, INPE said, citing the example of Hurricane Catarina. Catarina became the first hurricane to form off Brazil's coast in at least half a century -- more than a year before Katrina flooded the U.S. city of New Orleans.

Brazil's human population could also suffer if warmer weather accelerates mosquito breeding cycles, increasing the chances of disease outbreaks like malaria and dengue.

And while the south could be pounded by heavier rains, drier weather is likely to hit sensitive northern areas like the humid Amazon and the already drought-stricken northeast.

This month, IPCC climatologists released their latest report predicting average world temperatures could rise several degrees this century as heat-trapping carbon gases from burning fossil fuels clog the atmosphere (earlier post).

Brazil emits less carbon gas than most countries its size partly because of its rainforest cover and partly because nearly half its passenger car fleet runs on sugar-cane ethanol. President Bush will visit Brazil next week to discuss ethanol cooperation among other matters.

Bush is encouraging ethanol use to reduce U.S. dependency on oil and to lower its carbon emissions. The United States is the world's single largest producer of atmospheric carbon gas, and Bush was widely criticized for refusing to sign the global Kyoto protocol to cut emissions in 2001. "I haven't spoken to President Lula, but all of humanity needs President Bush to show more commitment to reducing greenhouse gases," Silva said.

Priorities and realism
Biofuels are not the silver bullet to fighting the human-induced warming of the planet, which may result in the tragic scenario of mass species extinctions. A whole range of efforts has to be combined, from reducing energy consumption in the wealthy West, to helping poor rural communities in the developing world to make the switch to renewables.

Consumers with the highest 'carbon-footprint' are beginning to feel responsible for the effects of their life-styles, as a recent report on the baby-boomer generation showed (earlier post). They are gradually becoming aware of the importance of energy conservation and want governments to act more thoroughly. But this transition process is occuring extremely slowly because of political inaction and a certain degree of hypocrisy (babyboomers, for example, are not willing to give up flying across the globe in GHG-emitting airplanes that bring them to sunny vacation spots).

Moreover, the issues at hand are quite complex and informing consumers on how to change their behavior in the right way, is not easy. Concepts, products and schemes such as 'food miles', 'organic food' or 'carbon offsets', which are used by many individuals in the West as a means to reduce one's personal carbon footprint, must be analysed far more thoroughly before being applied. Research clearly indicates that, sometimes, reliance on such concepts results in the opposite of what they're trying to achieve, that is, they may lead to higher carbon emissions, energy use and to more environmental damage (earlier post and here). Nuance and caution is needed, not trends and fashions.

Finally, rapidly growing economies, such as the ones of India and China are trapped by a modernistic concept of economic growth and the individualist, unsustainable consumer culture that goes with it. Millions of Chinese and Indian people are saving up to buy the ultimate symbol of bourgeois notions of sociality and 'freedom': the family car. Their desire to join the global army of mass consumers is unstoppable. And even though the governments of these countries are gradually recognising the threats their countries face by global warming (China's wake-up call) and by increased energy use, they are nonetheless massively investing in new fossil fuel infrastructures. They are not alone, even the U.S. is doing the same (earlier post).

Given all the above, a dose of realism is warranted. The time it takes to raise a global green conscience, especially in these 'transition economies' the people of which are understandably blinded by the new consumer culture that is opening up in front of them, may be too long. Energy consumption is going to increase massively over the coming decades (the IEA projects a 50% increase by 2030), as are greenhouse gas emissions, and in such a context, biofuels may offer one of the best compromises to intervene. If people are going to fill up millions more cars, it is best to have them filled up with biofuels, now. Brazil is the country that may contribute most to realising this important compromise.

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Spain's biofuels supply exceeds demand

Quicknote bioenergy economics
According to industry figures [*.pdf], biofuels supply in Spain far exceeds demand. While the supply of biofuels in the country is increasing rapidly, the amount currently being used remains minimal. Most of the excess is exported. The Spanish Ministry of Industry now considers making biofuels blending compulsory as part of its efforts to boost renewable energies and meet its target of 6 percent biofuel use in transport by 2010.

In 2006 Spanish plants produced the equivalent of 549,000 tonnes of oil equivalent grain-based bioethanol and oilseed-based biodiesel, Industry Ministry figures show.

For 2010 that needs to rise to 2.2 million tonnes and it has to be consumed internally, not exported, if Spain is to achieve the carbon dioxide emission targets it has set itself as part of its commitment to the Kyoto agreement to curb global warming.

Spain's Associatión de Productores de Energías Renovables (APPA) estimates biofuel usage was probably around 0.6 percent of the total, up from 0.44 percent in 2005. Even with uptake slow at home and in the face of falling oil prices and rising grain and soy costs, Spanish companies are piling into the sector.

Spain has a deficit in grain and produces little sunflower or rapeseed oil, so most companies depend on imported raw materials, mainly from Brazil, Colombia and Argentina [entry ends here].
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Entomologists discover cellulase genes in termite guts

As scientists search for alternatives to fossil fuel, producing chemical energy from wood fiber has become a big challenge. Several research organisations and biotech companies are trying to discover enzymes that break down cellulose into glucose in an efficient way (earlier post). However, termites have been working this alchemy for millions of years. A University of Florida (UF) study published last month in the journal Gene sheds new light on the mysterious and complex process that enables the insects to eat the cellulose, the main structural component of plant cells. For people and most animals, cellulose is indigestible, but termites break it down easily into glucose, a form of sugar most organisms need. These sugars can be fermented into bio-products, such as ethanol or bioplastics.

The study identifies four genes that produce enzymes responsible for taking cellulose molecules apart in a process called cellulase (picture, click to enlarge) insight that could lead to breakthroughs in energy production and pest control, said Michael Scharf, an assistant research scientist with UF’s entomology department and a co-author of the paper.

The scientists looked at the dominant termite species in the U.S. but they are sure they haven't identified all the genes involved in producing these enzymes yet. Only one of the genes actually belongs to the insect researchers studied, the eastern subterranean termite. The other three belong to microscopic organisms known as symbionts that live inside the termite’s digestive system:
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“The termites provide the symbionts with a home, and the symbionts pay the rent by producing enzymes,” says Sharf. Altogether, there may be hundreds of cellulose-digesting enzymes produced by the termites and their tiny tenants, Scharf said.

One potential payoff from the research is that scientists may be able to transfer specific enzyme-producing genes into bacteria, then culture them to produce large quantities of enzymes to make ethanol from wood scraps and other fibrous materials, he said.

Known as cellulosic ethanol, this fuel has gained worldwide attention because it doesn’t require edible material such as corn, used in conventional ethanol production.

The interaction of multiple genes makes cellulose digestion an efficient process in termites, but scientists want to pin down enzyme combinations that will digest cellulose affordably, Scharf said. Many genes remain undiscovered, and UF researchers have applied for funding to support a massive effort to identify all cellulose-digesting genes in the eastern subterranean termite and its common symbionts.

Greater genetic knowledge could also aid in termite control, an important issue in Florida, which accounts for about one-third of control efforts in the United States, said Phil Koehler, a UF entomology professor and co-author of the paper.

By identifying enzymes most crucial to termite digestion, scientists may be able to kill the insects by shutting down selected genes, he said.

Termite-control strategies, such as bait systems or treated lumber, would be environmentally friendly because they would have no effect on organisms that don’t eat cellulose, he said.

“Anything we do with this kind of work will reduce the need for conventional pesticides,” Koehler said.

Development of enzyme-blocking products could happen but will require attention to termite behavior, said Brian Forschler, an entomology professor at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Recent research shows that termites, which live in colonies that can number 1 million, often consume partially digested material excreted by their compatriots, he said. So it would be important that bait products not disrupt termites’ feeding behavior. If it did, termites might avoid an enzyme-stopping bait and instead share more partially digested food.

“You just have to remember that you’re dealing with an entire termite colony,” Forschler said. “This research holds a great deal of promise.”

Further termite genetics research could reveal effective methods of disrupting termite social behavior, perhaps in ways that cause the insects to die, said Faith Oi, an assistant extension scientist with UF’s entomology and nematology department.

“The model for exploiting the termite’s social behavior for control is not new,” said Oi, another co-author of the paper. “In terms of pest control, we can look to this area of science enhancing existing methods.”

Picture: different types of cellulase, relying on specific enzymes.

More information:

Xuguo Zhou, Joseph A. Smith, Faith M. Oi, Philip G. Koehler, Gary W. Bennett and Michael E. Scharf, Correlation of cellulase gene expression and cellulolytic activity throughout the gut of the termite Reticulitermes flavipes [*.pdf/subscription required], Gene, In Press, Accepted Manuscript, Available online 26 January 2007.

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