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Despised worm or useful ally?

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While scientists have been looking to the marine environment to provide “clean” energy by harnessing wave power or tides, a possible new ally has emerged, literally, from the woodwork — the underwater woodwork.

We are told that biofuels can be made from materials as diverse as elephant grass (Miscanthus giganteus), recycled waste, coppiced wood and seaweed but the process needed to become more efficient.

Most biomass used for biofuel contains a mixture of woody material (lignin) and polysaccharides such as cellulose. Cellulose is said to be the most common organic compound on Earth and thus has a vast potential as fuel.

Once separated, the lignin can be burned to help power the process but breaking down the polysaccharides requires the use of enzymes and this is one of the major economic costs of biofuel producers.  

Simon McQueen-Mason from the University of York and marine biologists from the University of Portsmouth are working on a project to develop second generation biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol. They have shown that the gribble worm’s stomach holds an abundance of bacteria that secrete an enzyme which breaks down cellulose into the simple sugars that can be processed to make biofuel.

The description “gribble worm” refers to any of about 56 species of marine isopod, the Limnoriidae. Many of them are wood-boring creatures and thus despised by every seafarer since man built the first wooden ship.

Gribble enzymes could improve the efficiency of biofuel generation from waste products, thus reducing the amount of agricultural land needed and lessening potential environmental damage caused by bio-crops.

It is strange to think that a creature against which sailors have fought a losing battle for so long could help to save the planet.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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