Ants offer potential new solution for biofuels

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Scientists from the University of Wisconsin, the Joint Genome Institute and Emory University study the natural bioreactors in rainforests for possible applications in the biofuel sector.

FUENTE – CleanTech – 06/07/09

The study of ants, fungi and bacteria could offer new methods of producing biofuel from plant materials, according to new research released today.

Scientists from the University of Wisconsin, the Joint Genome Institute and Emory University have been tracking the symbiotic relationship between the three groups of organisms in the rainforest. Together, the three can consume 880 pounds of dry leaves a year, maximizing the energy harnessed from the leaves through a bioreactor process refined over 50 million years, according to a report from Discovery News today.

Exactly how is the mystery, and it has prompted Roche to offer a grant to sequence the genomes of 17 organisms, which includes various species in each of the three groups. Further study of the process could result in highly efficient methods of processing plants into biofuels, the scientists said.

The three groups are entirely dependent on each other for survival. Leaf cutter ants bring sections of leaves back to their underground nests, feeding the leaves to fungi.

Then, according to Discovery News:

The fungi secrete enzymes onto the leaves that break down various molecules, leaving behind sugar that the ants use as food. Once the fungi have broken down all they can, the ants remove the leaf pieces from the fungal garden, carry them to the surface and discard them in heaps around the nest. Bacteria continue to break down the leftover leaves, so the waste doesn’t overwhelm the ant colony. … Without the fungi, the ant colonies die. Without the ants, the fungi cannot survive. The bacteria are dependent on both for their food.

The researchers say they think further research could help them discover new enzymes or techniques to produce biofuels.

The reserachers aren’t the only ones looking to nature to crack the biofuel puzzle.

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