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Researchers Isolate Two Enzymes from Termites to Break Up Lignin; Potential Boon to Cellulosic Ethanol

A team of researchers from the University of Florida and the biotechnology company Chesapeake-PERL Inc. of Savage, Md. have isolated two enzymes termites use to break up lignin.

During ethanol production, lignin molecules are clumped around the sugar molecules, forming a barrier the microbes often can’t penetrate; the material must first be exposed to heat and steam or caustic acids and bases to break it down. These extra steps make the process more expensive and often generate hazardous waste. As they report in a paper published online in the journal Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the researchers determined that enzymes found in termite salivary tissues may be able to accomplish the same task, and at room temperature.

cDNAs encoding two gut laccase isoforms (RfLacA and RfLacB) were sequenced from the termite Reticulitermes flavipes. Phylogenetic analyses comparing translated R. flavipes laccases to 67 others from prokaryotes and eukaryotes indicate that the R. flavipes laccases are evolutionarily unique.

...Both recombinant enzyme preparations showed strong activity towards the lignin monomer sinapinic acid and four other phenolic substrates. By contrast, both isoforms displayed much lower or no activity against four melanin precursors, suggesting that neither isoform is involved in integument formation. Modification of lignin alkali by the recombinant RfLacA preparation was also observed. These findings provide evidence that R. flavipes gut laccases are evolutionarily distinct, host-derived, produced in the salivary gland, secreted into the foregut, bind copper, and play a role in lignocellulose digestion. These findings contribute to a better understanding of termite digestion and gut physiology, and will assist future translational studies that examine the contributions of individual termite enzymes in lignocellulose digestion.

—Coy et al.

The work was funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE) and The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research Inc.

A 2009 report by Sandia National Laboratories predicted that cellulosic ethanol could replace about 30% of the nation’s gasoline by 2030, if the price of production could be reduced. (Earlier post.)

This is definitive and original research that could realistically be a significant contribution to green energy. It’s this kind of work that keeps pushing cellulosic ethanol toward practicality.

—James Preston, a UF microbiology professor who studies enzymes in bacteria that break down plant material

The study follows more than two years of work to identify nearly 7,000 genes associated with the termite gut. The researchers are wading through the genes to identify which ones are associated with enzymes that could be useful, and they are hopeful that many more such exciting discoveries are yet to come.


  • M.R. Coy, T.Z. Salem, J.S. Denton, E.S. Kovaleva, Z. Liu, D.S. Barber, J.H. Campbell, D.C. Davis, G.W. Buchman, D.G. Boucias, M.E. Scharf (2010) Phenol-oxidizing laccases from the termite gut. Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, In Press doi: 10.1016/j.ibmb.2010.07.004



Great research!


Goods news. Hope that it can be scaled up soon and at a reasonable price to transform forest wastes (and others) into usable liquid fuel to replace some imported crude.

Donough Shanahan

There is nothing here to scale up as yet. They have indications as to where to go with further research. The title is somewhat misleading.


From Earlier post:

"90 billion gallons of ethanol can be produced per year in the US"

This makes it all the more important to have all new cars FFV. If you design them to run on M85 as well, we could be free of OPEC oil. Make them HEV/PHEV and the picture gets even better.


I recently had orange oil injected into the timbers of a wall in my house because of termites. Termites go through about 1 foot of wood per year, apparently. Which begs the question...how fast do these enzymes work?


On a similar note, the metabolic versatility of this enzyme (xtreme xylanase) will enable economic enzyme production, biomass pretreatment process versatility, and significant equipment and operational cost savings that could make affordable cellulosic ethanol a reality.


Henry Gibson

All the remaining old forests of the US could not provide enough energy to supply the US energy requirement for one year, but let us try it anyway because the only way that people can be shown that "clean", "renewable" and "sustainable" fuels from forests are not possible for energy for the US is to cut down the very last trees of the two varieties of Redwoods and every other old growth tree as happened in Iceland hundreds of years ago.

Then each person, who believed that solar energy was a possible source of all the energy for the US, can buy, at his own unsubsidised expense, enough solar panels to cover each of his purchased acres of cleared forest and some way to store energy when the sun is not shining. He may use no other energy or food not produced by his own efforts from that land.

Cheap energy is the source of the wealth of the people of the US and other developed countries and it will destroy the economy to force people and industry to force people to pay more for energy because of a cultish belief about "clean" energy. Coal is a natural product, and nature burns it all the time, so it is natural to burn it. Natural is good!

Very few if any of the readers and comentators of this site own an electric car and pay a premium for electricity from wind turbines only. They are the "cleanest" source of energy.

The rotting of biomass in the water of hydroelectric lakes puts out much methane in many cases especially if there is much shallow water where the biomass is deposited with the silt. Nuclear power plants can produce lower cost and lower CO2 energy than wind turbines, but people who have 4000 nuclear potassium atomic explosions in them every second don't know it and have been led to believe that any nuclear exposure is too dangerous but are not told that living at high altitudes, like Denver, or flying in a plane exposes people to far more radiation than living next to the building of a nuclear power plant.

This is not the end of nuclear exposure because the earth, including the lawn, soil and trees in your neighborhood are radioactive and contain radioactive elements such as uranium in addition to the required potassium.

If an unknown unlabled bag of balanced garden fertilizer were found in a storeroom of a nuclear reactor, the far to strict regulations for nuclear power plants would require it to be shipped only to an approved nuclear waste storage site. This applies as well to an unlabled standard salt shaker filled with potassium containing salt substitute found on a desk.

Few nuclear decays produce as much energy as the decay of uranium. That means that a gamma ray from the decay of a uranium atom in your granite counter top or garden soil is as powerful as gamma rays from nuclear waste, and if used nuclear reactor rod fuel was dissolved in acid and diluted in water so that when the water was applied to your lawn the radioactivity was increased by one percent there is far far far less chance that you would be damaged by the additional radioactivity than you would be damaged by the additional radioactivity of hiking in the mountains.

Live things also repair damage from radioactive exposure most of the time if it is not in large amounts at one time. Did you ever have a sunburn that healed. Sun burns are the result of exposure to massive amount of nuclear energy generated rays from a nuclear reactor, the sun,.

People and all other life would be protected from nuclear radioactive waste very greatly if it were dissolved in acid and diluted with massive amounts of water and sprayed over the deserts and remote mountains in a way that the total surface radioactivity was only increased by one percent. No plutonium of any composition could be concentrated for any purpose, and an atom of it is no more dangerous than the atoms of the radio-active potassium built into every cell of the body.

A consortium should first build an island next to a small island nation that is paid well to support the project. Coal is delivered to the island and transformed into Methanol which is sold all over the world as clean cooking fuel and engine fuel.

A nuclear power plant is then built for the purpose of making hydrogen to make other fuels including ammonia which can be used as a very clean fuel or as a fertilizer or construction explosives can be made from it. A small laboratory allows the thorium fuel to be reprocessed on site to remove the fission fragment neutron poisons. Heavy water reactors can be used for a closed thorium cycle because of fission efficiency with heavy water, but a variant of the Rubbia energy amplifier might be more efficient.

Rapid fuel progress through the CANDU reactor followed by a wait before it is passed through again is thought to be more efficient. The Rubia fast reactor allows the direct fast neuton fission of thorium which saves the cost of the neutron to make U233.

CO2 from the production of methanol and ethanol can be used for making more methanol with hydrogen made from nuclear heat. The ocean may also be a source of CO2. Nuclear heat can be used to decompose materials that collected CO2 from the air, and this CO2 can also be used for fuel production.

Coal might be directly liquified with the addition of hydrogen. Ionic liquids might be used to carry the catalyst and the hydrogen. The coal might also be processed to concentrate it and make it into a dense slurry by extracting water from it. The coal slurry might be used to operate large ship engines along with diesel. Turbines can be modified to burn it.

A single CANDU nuclear reactor might displace enough natural gas to be made into liquid fuel to displace much biofuel production which also displaces natural gas use in many cases. ..HG..


Henry CANDU Gibson: The woody biomass of the world is not limited to old growth forests. The world is chock-full of invasive / exotic woody biomass that could be harvested for biofuel. For example, Florida is loaded with Brazilian Pepper, Australian Pine, and Chinese Tallow, all of which could be harvested on a regular basis to make an astronomical amount of biofuel.


There is enough kudzu and water hyacinth in Florida to fuel a few cars. Those are invasive species that they are trying to get rid of. If you can make fuel from them, it can offset the cost of harvesting.

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