Termites start breaking down their food when they chew it and coat it with an enzyme. We humans do something similar — he spit in our mouth’s can break down starches into sugars. But breaking down starch is easy compared to dealing with lignin and cellulose-rich materials like the termites do.
After breaking their food into smaller particles by chewing, the termites then pass the material into a three-part digestive system consisting of the foregut, the midgut, and then the larger hindgut. By the end of that – in just a day’s time — the lignin is out of the way and the cellulose has been broken down into sugars that the termites live on.
Professor Shulin Chen of Washington State University is one scientist studying what termites do with an eye toward adopting some similar processes to make biofuels from crop residues and woody materials.
“We are studying the mechanisms for how the termite does what it accomplishes in its digestive system,” Chen told me. “The goal is to employ a similar mechanism in an engineered system.”
In other words, we want to learn from termites and ultimately set up biorefineries that can break down crop residues and woody materials, doing so economically and in a way that doesn’t harm the environment.
“The final goal is to do better than the termite, to do the same basic work but at a faster rate and on a larger scale,” Chen said. “We know the basics of what’s going on in the termite, but we need to nail down some specifics.”
Chen’s research is partially supported by WSU, the university where both he and I work. But his research team is also funded by the National Science Foundation. Chen emphasizes that without federal funding of scientific research, teams like his could make little progress.