Agriculture
Cleaning Up Fish Farms
Flush-Free Fertilizer
Watching out for vultures
Amphibians
Salamanders and Newts
Toads
Salamanders
Animals
Ultrasonic Frogs Raise the Pitch
A Whale's Amazing Tooth
Fishy Cleaners
Behavior
Chimpanzee Hunting Tools
The Other Side of the Zoo Fence
Two monkeys see a more colorful world
Birds
Blue Jays
Pelicans
Pigeons
Chemistry and Materials
Popping to Perfection
Gooey Secrets of Mussel Power
Boosting Fuel Cells
Computers
A Classroom of the Mind
Hubble trouble doubled
Galaxies far, far, far away
Dinosaurs and Fossils
Fossil Fly from Antarctica
From Mammoth to Modern Elephant
The bug that may have killed a dinosaur
E Learning Jamaica
2014 GSAT Results for Jamaican Kids
E Learning in Jamaica WIN PRIZES and try our Fun Animated Games
Results of GSAT are in schools this week
Earth
The Pacific Ocean's Bald Spot
Ancient Heights
Coral Gardens
Environment
Out in the Cold
Little Bits of Trouble
Hazy with a Chance of Sunshine
Finding the Past
Meet your mysterious relative
Sahara Cemetery
Stonehenge Settlement
Fish
Great White Shark
Pygmy Sharks
Halibut
Food and Nutrition
Healing Honey
A Pepper Part that Burns Fat
Food for Life
GSAT English Rules
Finding Subjects and Verbs
Subject and Verb Agreement
Who vs. Whom
GSAT Exam Preparation Jamaica
Results of GSAT are in schools this week
Scotiabank Jamaica Foundation Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) Scholarships
Tarrant High overcoming the odds
GSAT Exams Jamaica Scholarships
Results of GSAT are in schools this week
GSAT Scholarship
GSAT stars reap scholarship glory
GSAT Mathematics
Math of the World
42,000 students will sit for the GSAT Exam in two weeks
10 Common Mistakes When Preparing for the GSAT Math Test
Human Body
Kids now getting 'adult' disease
Workouts: Does Stretching Help?
Running with Sneaker Science
Invertebrates
Corals
Wasps
Sea Urchin
Mammals
Walrus
Wildcats
Cheetah
Parents
What Not to Say to Emerging Readers
Children and Media
The Surprising Meaning and Benefits of Nursery Rhymes
Physics
One ring around them all
The Mirror Universe of Antimatter
Invisibility Ring
Plants
Bright Blooms That Glow
Tracking the Sun Improves Plant Pollen
Hungry bug seeks hot meal
Reptiles
Black Mamba
Copperhead Snakes
Komodo Dragons
Space and Astronomy
A Moon's Icy Spray
Unveiling Titan
Cousin Earth
Technology and Engineering
Searching for Alien Life
Squeezing Oil from Old Wells
Crime Lab
The Parts of Speech
Countable and Uncountable Nouns
What is a Verb?
Pronouns
Transportation
Middle school science adventures
Charged cars that would charge
Flying the Hyper Skies
Weather
Recipe for a Hurricane
Weekend Weather Really Is Different
The Best Defense Is a Good Snow Fence
Add your Article

Microbes at the Gas Pump

 

Scientists searching for an Earth-friendly alternative to gasoline are looking in some of the weirdest places—termite guts, cow stomachs, and rotting logs. These researchers are hunting for bacteria and fungi that can help turn plant waste into a liquid fuel called ethanol.

Many vehicles run on fuels made of a blend of gasoline and ethanol. Experts at the U.S. Department of Energy say that using more ethanol would help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

To produce enough ethanol to meet our energy needs, researchers are developing methods to turn plant parts into ethanol. They’re members of a growing movement to use renewable resources, such as plants, to provide energy.

“There’s leftover plant material everywhere,” says Jared Leadbetter. “There are rice hulls, sawdust, wood chips—plant material that’s full of energy.” Leadbetter is a microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

To tap this energy supply, scientists and engineers are turning to microbes to convert huge amounts of waste plant material into ethanol for cars.

Breaking down sugars

When tiny organisms such as yeast break down sugars to obtain energy, they produce ethanol. This process is called fermentation.

Scientists and engineers have been using fermentation for years to make ethanol from kernels of corn. But there’s a lot more to a corn plant than just the kernel. Corn plants include stalks, leaves, and the cob that’s left behind after the kernels are removed.

The trouble is that stalks, leaves, and other plant parts contain a complex molecule called cellulose. It’s a tough molecule to break down. In fact, our bodies can’t even digest it.

But breaking down cellulose into sugar molecules is a key step in making ethanol from the nearly 430 million tons of plant waste produced on farmland every year.

Fortunately, some organisms make compounds called enzymes that can digest, or break down, cellulose. Scientists hope to use such enzymes to produce ethanol.

Termite stomachs

Scientists are looking for these cellulose-busting enzymes in unusual places—termite stomachs, for example.

Most people think of termites as pests because of the damage that they do to homes and other structures. But termites harbor more than 100 species of bacteria in their guts—bacteria that may help us make ethanol from plant waste.

These microbes digest cellulose and other complex molecules in wood. Without their bacteria, termites wouldn’t be able to survive on their woody diet.

Leadbetter and his coworkers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute are studying the genes of microbes that produce wood-digesting enzymes. Made up of molecules called DNA, genes determine such traits as the shape of a plant leaf, the color of an animal’s coat, or the texture of a person’s hair.

“We are making a toolbox of wood-degrading enzymes and we want to tap it to obtain enzymes for making ethanol,” Leadbetter says.

Once they find the genes that control the enzymes that digest wood and those that produce ethanol, Leadbetter and his team hope to genetically modify bacteria to do both steps.

Cow stomachs

The dark depths of a cow’s stomach are home to cellulose-munching microbes as well, says Paul Weimer. He’s a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Dairy Forage Center in Madison, Wis.

“Cows are natural processors,” Weimer says. “They make their living by eating plants, and bacteria carry out their fiber digestion.”

Weimer says that the bacteria in a cow’s stomach produce many different enzymes that break down the cellulose in grass and other plants in a cow’s diet.

These bacteria hold cellulose-digesting enzymes on their cell surfaces in a structure called a cellulosome. What’s more, the bacteria attach themselves to cellulose fibers in the cow’s stomach and digest them on the spot.

“The bacteria basically glue themselves to the fiber and begin digesting it,” Weimer says. “It works like a disassembly line that takes apart the cell wall.”

Right now, making ethanol from cellulose is expensive. Enzymes are costly to make, and current methods for breaking down cellulose require a lot of energy.

“If we could re-create the activity of the cellulosome,” Weimer says, “we could greatly increase the efficiency and improve the economics of digesting cellulose.”

Increasing production

Another common wood digester is a fungus called Trichoderma reesei. By producing cellulose-digesting enzymes, this fungus breaks down logs in the forest and causes “jungle rot,” which ruins tents and other fabrics in the tropics.

At least one company has developed strains of this fungus that can churn out huge quantities of enzymes.

Advances in ethanol production can’t come soon enough. Last year, President Bush signed a law requiring 7.5 billion gallons of biofuels such as ethanol to be blended with gasoline by 2012. That’s almost twice the amount of ethanol that we produce from corn today.

Maybe, by the time you get your driver’s license, you’ll be fueling up at the ethanol pump.


 

Microbes at the Gas Pump
Microbes at the Gas Pump








Designed and Powered by HBJamaica.com™