<body><script type="text/javascript"> //<![CDATA[ try{(function(a){var b="http://",c="news.mongabay.com",d="/cdn-cgi/cl/",e="img.gif",f=new a;f.src=[b,c,d,e].join("")})(Image)}catch(e){} //]]> </script> --------------
Contact Us       Consulting       Projects       Our Goals       About Us
home / Archive
Nature Blog Network


    Note: Biopact's mail-server is being changed, so any incoming mails will bounce-back. The problem will be solved in the coming 12-24 hours. Biopact Team - November 22, 2007.

    Analysts think Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems, which pumped hundreds of millions and decades of research into developing hydrogen fuel cells for cars, is going to sell its automotive division. Experts describe the development as "the death of the hydrogen highway". The problems with H2 fuel cell cars are manifold: hydrogen is a mere energy carrier and its production requires a primary energy input; production is expensive, as would be storage and distribution; finally, scaling fuel cells and storage tanks down to fit in cars remains a huge challenge. Meanwhile, critics have said that the primary energy for hydrogen can better be used for electricity and electric vehicles. On a well-to-wheel basis, the cleanest and most efficient way to produce hydrogen is via biomass, so the news is a set-back for the biohydrogen community. But then again, biomass can be used more efficiently as electricity for battery cars. Canada.com - November 21, 2007.

    South Korea plans to invest 20 billion won (€14.8/$21.8 million) by 2010 on securing technologies to develop synthetic fuels from biomass, coal and natural gas, as well as biobutanol. 29 private companies, research institutes and universities will join this first stage of the "next-generation clean energy development project" led by South Korea's Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy. Korea Times - November 19, 2007.

    OPEC leaders began a summit today with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez issuing a chilling warning that crude prices could double to US$200 from their already-record level if the United States attacked Iran or Venezuela. He urged assembled leaders from the OPEC, meeting for only the third time in the cartel's 47-year history, to club together for geopolitical reasons. But the cartel is split between an 'anti-US' block including Venezuela, Iran, and soon to return ex-member Ecuador, and a 'neutral' group comprising most Gulf States. France24 - November 17, 2007.

    The article "Biofuels: What a Biopact between North and South could achieve" published in the scientific journal Energy Policy (Volume 35, Issue 7, 1 July 2007, Pages 3550-3570) ranks number 1 in the 'Top 25 hottest articles'. The article was written by professor John A. Mathews, Macquarie University (Sydney, Autralia), and presents a case for a win-win bioenergy relationship between the industrialised and the developing world. Mathews holds the Chair of Strategic Management at the university, and is a leading expert in the analysis of the evolution and emergence of disruptive technologies and their global strategic management. ScienceDirect - November 16, 2007.

    Timber products company China Grand Forestry Resources Group announced that it would acquire Yunnan Shenyu New Energy, a biofuels research group, for €560/$822 million. Yunnan Shenyu New Energy has developed an entire industrial biofuel production chain, from a fully active energy crop seedling nursery to a biorefinery. Cleantech - November 16, 2007.

    Northern European countries launch the Nordic Bioenergy Project - "Opportunities and consequences of an expanding bio energy market in the Nordic countries" - with the aim to help coordinate bioenergy activities in the Nordic countries and improve the visibility of existing and future Nordic solutions in the complex field of bioenergy, energy security, competing uses of resources and land, regional development and environmental impacts. A wealth of data, analyses and cases will be presented on a new website - Nordic Energy - along with announcements of workshops during the duration of project. Nordic Energy - November 14, 2007.

    Global Partners has announced that it is planning to increase its refined products and biofuels storage capacity in Providence, Rhode Island by 474,000 barrels. The partnership has entered into agreements with New England Petroleum Terminal, at a deepwater marine terminal located at the Port of Providence. PRInside - November 14, 2007.

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) kicks off the meeting in Valencia, Spain, which will result in the production of the Synthesis Report on climate change. The report will summarize the core findings of the three volumes published earlier by the separate working groups. IPCC - November 12, 2007.

    Biopact's Laurens Rademakers is interviewed by Mongabay on the risks of large-scale bioenergy with carbon storage (BECS) proposals. Even though Biopact remains positive about BECS, because it offers one of the few safe systems to mitigate climate change in a drastic way, care must be take to avoid negative impacts on tropical forests. Mongabay - November 10, 2007.

    According to the latest annual ranking produced by The Scientist, Belgium is the world's best country for academic research, followed by the U.S. and Canada. Belgium's top position is especially relevant for plant, biology, biotechnology and bioenergy research, as these are amongst the science fields on which it scores best. The Scientist - November 8, 2007.

    Mascoma Corporation, a cellulosic ethanol company, today announced the acquisition of Celsys BioFuels, Inc. Celsys BioFuels was formed in 2006 to commercialize cellulosic ethanol production technology developed in the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering at Purdue University. The Celsys technology is based on proprietary pretreatment processes for multiple biomass feedstocks, including corn fiber and distiller grains. The technology was developed by Dr. Michael Ladisch, an internationally known leader in the field of renewable fuels and cellulosic biofuels. He will be taking a two-year leave of absence from Purdue University to join Mascoma as the company’s Chief Technology Officer. Business Wire - November 7, 2007.

    Bemis Company, Inc. announced today that it will partner with Plantic Technologies Limited, an Australian company specializing in starch-based biopolymers, to develop and sell renewably resourced flexible films using patented Plantic technology. Bemis - November 7, 2007.

    Hungary's Kalocsa Hõerõmû Kft is to build a HUF 40 billion (€158.2 million) straw-fired biomass power plant with a maximum capacity of 49.9 megawatts near Kalocsa in southern Hungary. Portfolio Hungary - November 7, 2007.

    Canada's Gemini Corporation has received approval to proceed into the detailed engineering, fabrication and construction phases of a biogas cogeneration facility located in the Lethbridge, Alberta area, the first of its kind whereby biogas production is enhanced through the use of Thermal Hydrolysis technology, a high temperature, high pressure process for the safe destruction of SRM material from the beef industry. The technology enables a facility to redirect waste material, previously shipped to landfills, into a valuable feedstock for the generation of electricity and thermal energy. This eliminates the release of methane into the environment and the resultant solids are approved for use as a land amendment rather than re-entering the waste stream. In addition, it enhances the biogas production process by more than 25%. Market Wire - November 7, 2007.

    A new Agency to manage Britain's commitment to biofuels was established today by Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly. The Renewable Fuels Agency will be responsible for the day to day running of the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, coming into force in April next year. By 2010, the Obligation will mean that 5% of all the fuels sold in the UK should come from biofuels, which could save 2.6m to 3m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. eGov Monitor - November 5, 2007.

    Prices for prompt loading South African coal cargoes reached a new record last week with a trade at $85.00 a tonne free-on-board (FOB) for a February cargo. Strong Indian demand and tight supply has pushed South African prices up to record levels from around $47.00 at the beginning of the year. European DES/CIF ARA coal prices have remained fairly stable over the past few days, having traded up to a record $130.00 a tonne DES ARA late last week. Fair value is probably just below $130.00 a tonne, traders said. At this price, some forms of biomass become directly competitive with coal. Reuters Africa - November 4, 2007.

    The government of India's Harayana state has decided to promote biomass power projects based on gasification in a move to help rural communities replace costly diesel and furnace oil. The news was announced during a meeting of the Haryana Renewable Energy Development Agency (HAREDA). Six pilot plants have demonstrated the efficiency and practicability of small-scale biomass gasification. Capital subsidies will now be made available to similar projects at the rate of Rs 2.5 lakh (€4400) per 100 KW for electrical applications and Rs 2 lakh (€3500) per 300 KW for thermal applications. New Kerala - November 1, 2007.


Creative Commons License


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tata Chemicals joins ICRISAT's Sweet Sorghum Ethanol Research Consortium

India's Tata Chemicals Limited (TCL), a leading company in the Tata group of industries joined hands today with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) by signing a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) for entering its Sweet Sorghum Ethanol Research Consortium (SSERC). Dr. William Dar, Director General of ICRISAT, and Homi R. Khusrokhan, Managing Director of TCL, signed the MOA in Hyderabad. It is envisaged that there is a huge global opportunity for all partners to work together to benefit millions of poor farmers by offering new market opportunities through this new venture.

The partnership will go a long way in enhancing the commercialization of sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench) for bioethanol production. Production of ethanol from sweet sorghum as a biofuel can provide additional incomes to dryland farmers and thus boost their livelihoods, including their food security. Through the ICRISAT Sweet Sorghum Ethanol Research Consortium (SSERC) the institute promotes technology for producing the biofuel through public-private partnerships.

ICRISAT is a nonprofit, non-political organization engaged in innovative agricultural research and capacity building for sustainable development with a wide array of partners across the globe. ICRISAT's mission is to help empower 600 million poor people to overcome hunger, poverty and a degraded environment in the dry tropics through better agriculture. ICRISAT belongs to the Alliance of Future Harvest Centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which helped making the 'Green Revolution' a success.

ICRISAT recently developed sweet sorghum hybrids that yield more sugar and that allow poor farmers to grow both food, fuel and animal fodder. The research resulted in a cultivar that is relatively drought tolerant, needs comparatively small amounts of water and yields high amounts of easily extractable sugar that can be used as a feedstock for ethanol production. Like sugar cane, the sugars are contained in the plant's canes; for an equivalent amount of bioethanol, the new sorghums need much less water than sugarcane and are therefor suitable for dryland regions (previous post).

The sweet sorghum hybrids form the core of ICRISAT's 'Pro-Poor Biofuels Initiative' [*.pdf] which aims to join food, fiber, feed and fuel production amongst poor dryland farmers (more here and here).

Tata Chemical Limited is today a leading manufacturer of inorganic chemicals, fertilizers and food additives. The company has an annual turnover of about US$ 1.5 billion and is part of the US$ 28.8 billion Tata Group, India's foremost business conglomerate:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Recently TCL entered biofuels production and is setting up a plant in Nanded, Maharashtra, for the manufacture of bioethanol from sweet sorghum. Through the MOA, TCL can now avail itself of the sweet sorghum research outputs of ICRISAT. This includes supply of seeds of sweet sorghum varieties and hybrids along with technical know-how on sweet sorghum cultivation aspects.

Khusrokhan said that he was very happy TCL had joined the consortium and was impressed by the developmental work done by ICRISAT globally. Credit: The Hindu.


Picture
: Dr. A. R. Palani Swamy, Managing Director of Rusni Distilleries, displaying ethanol extracted from sweet sorghum at his plant in Mohammed Shapur village in Medak district, 65 km from Hyderabad. Rusni Distilleries is one of the first to actually produce sweet sorghum ethanol in collaboration with ICRISAT.

References:
Tata Chemicals: Tata Chemicals joins ICRISAT's sweet sorghum ethanol consortium - November 21, 2007.

ICRISAT: Pro-Poor Biofuels Outlook for Asia and Africa: ICRISAT’s Perspective [*.pdf].

Biopact: ICRISAT launches pro-poor biofuels initiative in drylands - March 15, 2007

Biopact: ICRISAT's pro-poor biofuel projects provide livelihood and food security to landless farmers in India - August 13, 2007

Biopact: Sweet super sorghum - yield data for the ICRISAT hybrid - February 21, 2007



Article continues

Germany massively increases biofuels targets to kickstart next generation fuels: 10% in 2010, 20% in 2020

The German government has announced [*German] its new Biofuels Roadmap, with which it will massively increase the country's biofuels target, doubling it from 5% by 2010 to 10% by that year, and to 20% by 2020. This way it doubles the EU's biofuel targets (which require 10% of all fuels to be biofuels by 2020). Europe's largest fuel consumer agreed on the measures after consultation with the agriculture, automotive and oil industry. The move is seen as a strategy to speed up the development of next generation biofuels. Germany is at the forefront of developing biomass-to-liquids fuels and new types of biodiesel based on hydrogenating plant oils. The country's land devoted to dedicated energy crops will be doubled and possibly tripled.

Launching the Roadmap Biokraftstoffe [*German], Minister of the Environment Sigmar Gabriel and Minister of Agriculture Horst Seehofer stressed that only biofuels will be taken into account that are sustainably produced and reduce greenhouse gas emissions considerably.

The new, ambitious targets for biofuels look as follows:
  • For bioethanol, the target is now set at a 10% blend into gasoline by 2010, which poses no problem for use in current gasoline engines. The addition of bio-based Ethyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (ETBE) to gasoline will be promoted as well. E10 will become the new German norm and will be made available to consumers in at least 1,000 stations by the year 2016.
  • For diesel, a mixture of 7% biodiesel and 3% hydrogenated vegetable oils by 2010 is set as the new goal. Hydrogenated plant oils are also known as 'green diesel', or 'H-Bio', and draw upon advanced bioconversion methods found in the petroleum industry.
  • Between 2010 and 2020, the Agriculture and Environment Ministeries want the increasing shares - to reach 20% of all transport fuels by 2020 - to come from synthetic biofuels. Such biomass-to-liquids (BTL) fuels are obtained by gasifying biomass and then liquefying it via the Fischer-Tropsch process, a technique originally developed in Germany. This allows the use of cellulosic biomass from dedicated energy crops and from agricultural, industrial and forestry waste.
  • Cellulosic alcohols (ethanol, biobutanol) obtained from the biochemical transformation of biomass will be promoted over the same period.
  • Biomethane for transport will also be encouraged. The fuel is obtained after upgrading biogas made from the anaerobic digestion of biomass.
According to the Ministry for Agriculture, Germany currently only devotes 13% of its arable land to dedicated energy crops. This share will at least be doubled by 2020 and perhaps tripled if research indicates this is feasible and if market conditions and EU measures permit this, Seehofer said:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
Sustainability and certification
A system will be implemented that computes the total greenhouse gas emission profile of imported biomass. The Environment Ministry says only those biofuel feedstocks will be allowed that result in a net reduction of emissions. The Germany government is working on the development of national, EU-wide and international certification mechanisms and sustainability criteria to be applied to international biomass trade.

Taxation
When it comes to biofuels taxation, Seehofer said he is trying to scale back and halt further taxes for biodiesel, which recently lost its tax-free status. Because of the new tax, German biodiesel producers are closing or stopping production. Industry groups estimate Germany's once-booming biodiesel industry is producing at about 20 percent of capacity following the government's taxing of green fuels. A second round of tax increases on biodiesel is on the statute book and scheduled to be imposed in January 2008. The government has so far refused industry calls to reconsider this.

Asked at the presentation in Berlin about the planned tax rise on biodiesel, Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer said this was still being discussed. "I am fighting to keep the competitiveness of biofuels," Seehofer said. "There is still no agreement." But a finance ministry spokesman said the tax rise would go ahead. A new report on biofuels to be presented by the government would show subsidies and special tax breaks were too high, the spokesman said.

Techno-neutrality and costs
Reacting to the news of the increased biofuels targets, Matthias Wissmann, chairman of the German Federation of the Automobile Industry, said: "we have set in motion a transition towards second-generation biofuels, which are virtually carbon-neutral and to not have any effect on food prices." The high quality standard of synthetic biofuels gives it a competitive edge over first generation fuels, for which standards may be increased.

The managing director of Germany's Mineral Oil Trade Association, Klaus Picard, said he was pleased to note that the German government has remained technology-neutral and does not choose one production process over another to reach the goals. This allows producers to compete and to reach the targets with the smalles cost load for consumers.

However, Environment Minister Gabriel stressed that that the massive increase in biofuels does not relieve the vehicle industry of its obligation to build more efficient cars. Improved engines and more efficient vehicles is a key part of transiting to a low-carbon economy, he said.

Minister Seehofer pointed out that the use of biofuels in the past year had already reduced Germany's carbon dioxide emissions by 12,7 million tons.


The organisations that participated in the consultation on biofuels that led to the new targets include the following: Verband der Automobilindustrie, Mineralölwirtschaftverband, Deutscher Bauernverband, Interessengemeinschaft mittelständischer Mineralölverbände and the Verband Deutscher Biodieselhersteller.

References:
Bundesministerium fur Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Verbraucherschutz: Roadmap Biokraftstoffe - Gemeinsame Strategie von BMU/BMELV, VDA, MWV, IG, VDB und DBV - November 21, 2007.

Bundesministerium fur Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Verbraucherschutz: Roadmap Biokraftstoffe: Daten und Fakten [Numbers and Facts] - November 21, 2007.


Article continues

Sun Grant Initiative wins $50 million in transportation funding

The transportation bill that the U.S. Congress approved recently includes $50 million over the next five years for the Sun Grant Initiative (SGI), a nationwide research effort to promote bio-based renewable energy that began at South Dakota State University (SDSU). The SGI has now grown to five regional centers that coordinate and disburse funds to research into biomass production, bioenergy, biofuels and bio-based products. A first series of 17 selected projects were announced in Ausgust (previous post).

Despite being nearly two years overdue, the new transportation bill overwhelmingly passed the House and the Senate on July 29. The Sun Grant Initiative, or SGI, will broaden the mission of land-grant universities to include biobased energy and bio-based products as a core effort.

The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU, Public Law 109-59), enacted in 2005, authorized funding for each of fiscal years 2006 through 2009, to carry out biobased research of national importance [Section 5201(m)]. The funding comes from the Department of Transportation (DOT) and goes to each of the five regional SGI Centers.

Five land-grant universities serve as the regional Sun Grant centers to emphasize research, teaching and Extension work focusing on energy and biobased products. They are: Oregon State University, South Dakota State University, Oklahoma State University, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and Cornell University.

In addition, the National Biodiesel Board in Jefferson City, Mo., will also receive funding. Kevin Kephart, director of the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station, said Senator John Thune has informed him that each of the five Sun Grant centers will receive $1.66 million annually, or $8.3 million total, over the next five years. “

Each of the five SGI Centers manages its own regional competitive grants program, to best meet the challenges of bioenergy and biomass research and education needs within their respective regions:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

As part of the development of the Regional Competitive Grants Program, each of the SGI Centers developed a solicitation for their region, consistent with national priorities identified by an ad hoc federal agency panel led by DOT/RITA with representatives from DOE, USDA, EPA and DOD.

These national priorities for renewable transportation fuel development included: biofuel feedstock development; biofuels conversion processes; biofuel system analysis; economics, marketing and policy; and, environmental impacts.

These national priorities were considered in the context of the unique biomass and biomass resources and challenges within each of the regions. Each of the five regional Sun Grant Initiative Centers announced its regional competitive grants program in a Request for Applications (RFA) released in later February through early March of 2007.

Each region developed peer review panels with representatives from academia as well as specialists from national laboratories and federal agencies with appropriate subject matter expertise. Projects were selected on the basis of scientific merit, novelty, probability of success, timeframe for results, and priority for the region.

With a more diverse biomass resource base, the Western and North Eastern region funded a larger number of smaller “start-up” and exploratory grants.

The SGI was authorized in the 2002 farm bill. SDSU President Peggy Gordon Miller said the newly approved funding will allow land-grant university scientists to pursue new biobased products under the Sun Grant Initiative. "We are so pleased to be able to continue Dr. Kephart's national leadership in the biotechnologies," Miller said.

The Sun Grant Initiative is a national network of land grant universities and U.S. Department of Energy laboratories partnering to create energy and other non-traditional products from agriculture. Scientists will develop a practical vision to literally grow an increasing share of America's energy, while "harvesting" new products from agriculture that farmers scarcely dreamed of a generation ago -- from plastics and cosmetics to solvents and building materials.

Gary Lemme, dean of SDSU’s College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, said the members of the South Dakota congressional delegation have been leaders in supporting the Sun Grant Initiative:
The Sun Grant will permit outstanding scientists at South Dakota State University and across the nation to cooperate with entrepreneurs and agricultural commodity groups to develop renewable fuels and chemicals from locally produced agricultural products. - Gary Lemme, dean South Dakota State University, College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences
It is expected the biobased economy will be good for South Dakota by creating new markets and processing opportunities while helping out nation become energy self-reliant.”

The previous transportation bill, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), expired in September 2003. Senator Thune has included the funding for biobased fuel research at SDSU in a Senate version of a bill to re-authorize TEA-21 over the next five years (2005-2009). The bill that passed the Senate must now be reconciled with a similar bill that passed the House of Representatives in March.

The Sun Grant Initiative also manages the BioWeb, a non-commercial, educational website that provides current information about using biomass resources for bioenergy and bioproducts.

References:
Sun Grant Initiative: Sun Grant Initiative wins transportation funding - s.d. November, 2007.

Sun Grant Initiative: Biobased fuel research included in transportation bill - s.d. November, 2007.

Biopact: Sun Grant Initiative funds 17 bioenergy research projects - August 20, 2007




Article continues

Scientists sequence and analyse genomes of termite gut microbes to yield novel enzymes for cellulosic biofuel production

An international team of scientists has sequenced and analysed the genomes of the microbes found in termite guts. Termites - notorious for their voracious appetite for wood, rendering houses to dust - may provide the biochemical means to a greener biofuel future. Termite guts harbor a gold mine of microbes that have now been tapped as a rich source of enzymes for improving the conversion of abundant biomass and wood to valuable next-generation biofuels. The research has long been anticipated by the bioenergy community.

The sequencing was conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI), which leads sequencing of energy crops and microorganisms for bioenergy (more here), the California Institute of Technology, Verenium Corporation (formerly Diversa), a biofuels company, INBio, the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica, and the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. The analysis is highlighted in the November 22 edition of the journal Nature.

The termite is a remarkable machine. It can digest a frightening amount of wood in a very short time, as anyone who has had termites in their house is painfully aware. Instead of using harsh chemicals or excess heat to do so, termites employ an array of specialized microbes in their hindguts to break down the cell walls of plant material and catalyze the digestion process.

Industrial-scale DNA sequencing by DOE JGI was key to identifying the genetic structures that comprise the tools that termites use. The task now is to discover the metabolic pathways generated by these structures to figure out how nature digests plant materials. Scientists can then synthesize the novel enzymes discovered through this project to accelerate the delivery of the next generation of cellulosic biofuels.

While termites have been the subject of keen scientific study for more than a century, the precise identity and role of the microbes from their digestive tract remained a mystery. With this new work, the symbiotic orchestration of these compartmentalized, complex microbial communities required for wood digestion is now coming to light.

Like cows, termites have a series of stomachs, each harboring a distinct community of microbes under precisely defined conditions. These bugs within bugs are tasked with particular steps along the conversion pathway of woody polymers to sugars that can then be fermented into fuels such as ethanol. The mandibles of the insect chomp the wood into bits, but the real work is conducted in the dark recesses of the belly, where the enzymatic juices exuded by microbes attack and deconstruct the cellulose and hemicellulose, which, along with lignin, are the basic building blocks of wood.

The tiny insects that gave up their stomach contents to advance the frontiers of science were isolated on a safari into the rainforest of Costa Rica, the world's geographic hotbed of biodiversity for termites, by co-author Jared Leadbetter of Cal Tech, first author Falk Warnecke of DOE JGI's Microbial Ecology Program, and members of Verenium and INBio. Traipsing through the jungle, the team came upon a massive, tumor-like nest of termites clinging to an otherwise nondescript tree. With a flick of a machete, the contents of this dense network of tunnels forged from wood waste were revealed, along with a frenzy of higher termites from the genus Nasutitermes (picture), which are only about the size of the date imprinted on a penny:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Foregoing the funnel-headed "soldiers," the project focused on the larger "workers," with bulbous heads and inflated bellies. In the laboratory of INBio, researchers armed with fine forceps and needles painstakingly extracted the contents of the workers' third paunch or hindgut, referred to as P3, a distended kink in the convoluted plumbing system of the termite. Each sample was barely visible to the naked eye, and care was taken not to contaminate it with material from neighboring stomachs. Contents from 165 specimens were purified, yielding only a few valuable drops - a veritable microbial mosh pit - that was sent on ice to Verenium for DNA extraction and preparation, then on to DOE JGI's Walnut Creek (CA) Production Genomics Facility for sequencing.

From the sample, about 71 million letters of fragmented genetic code were elaborated and computationally reassembled, like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, to tease out the identities of the microbial players in the mixture and the metabolic profile of the enzymes that they produce. From this reconstructed liquid puzzle emerged the identities of a dozen different phyla - broad groupings of microbial life forms.
Our analysis revealed that the hindgut is dominated by two major bacterial lineages, treponemes and fibrobacters. Treponemes have long been recognized in the termite gut due to their distinctive cork-screw shape, but fibrobacters were an exciting new find, because they have relatives in the cow rumen known to degrade cellulose. We could directly link the termite fibrobacters and treponemes to enzymes capable of breaking down wood. However, fibrobacters are specialists in this regard and don't appear to participate in sugar fermentation, leaving that to the treponemes. This project has really given me a new appreciation for the lowly termite, a mobile miniature bioreactor. - Phil Hugenholtz, DOE JGI's Microbial Ecology Program head, co-author
In the termite P3 compartment alone, more than 500 genes related to the enzymatic deconstruction of cellulose and hemicellulose were identified by Hugenholtz and colleagues. This dataset has since been uploaded by DOE JGI onto its metagenome data management and analysis system, IMG/M for public access and further analysis.
Adapting these findings for an industrial-scale system is far from easy. Termites can efficiently convert milligrams of lignocellulose into fermentable sugars in their tiny bioreactor hindguts. Scaling up this process so that biomass factories can produce biofuels more efficiently and economically is another story. To get there, we must define the set of genes with key functional attributes for the breakdown of cellulose, and this study represents an essential step along that path. - Eddy Rubin, JGI Director
Nature paper first author Falk Warnecke is a postdoctoral fellow in the Hugenholtz lab. Other DOE JGI authors include Natalia Ivanova, Rotem Sorek, Susannah Tringe, Hector Garcia Martin, Victor Kunin, Daniel Dalevi, Julita Madejska, Edward Kirton, Darren Platt, Ernest Szeto, Asaf Salamov, Kerrie Barry, Natalia Mikhailova, Nikos Kyrpides, and Director Rubin.

These findings follow on the heels of the announcement by DOE Secretary Samuel Bodman in June that DOE will invest up to $375 million in three new Bioenergy Research Centers to accelerate basic research in the development of cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels. DOE JGI will conduct genome sequencing in support of these centers (earlier post).

The termite hindgut whodunit builds upon DOE JGI's pioneering "metagenomic" research, where genetic material is isolated, identified, and characterized directly from environmental samples, providing a profile of a particular (often extreme) ecological niche. Published investigations by DOE JGI include glimpses into such diverse slices of the biosphere as acid mine drainage, a gutless worm, farm soil, submerged whalebones, and sewage sludge.

Currently among the scores of projects in the sequencing queue at DOE JGI are metagenomes from contents of the Tammar wallaby forestomach, the Asian longhorned beetle gut, and other exotic species that promise to be treasure troves of enzymes involved in cellulose deconstruction. These targets were submitted through DOE JGI's Community Sequencing Program (CSP), which provides the scientific community with access to high-throughput sequencing for projects of relevance to DOE missions.

The U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute, supported by the DOE Office of Science, unites the expertise of five national laboratories -- Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Pacific Northwest -- along with the Stanford Human Genome Center to advance genomics in support of the DOE missions related to clean energy generation and environmental characterization and cleanup. DOE JGI's Walnut Creek, CA, Production Genomics Facility provides integrated high-throughput sequencing and computational analysis that enable systems-based scientific approaches to these challenges.

Picture: Nasutitermes corniger termites photographed in Puerto Rico. Credit: David Gilbert, DOE Joint Genome Institute.

References:
Falk Warnecke, et al., "Metagenomic and functional analysis of hindgut microbiota of a wood-feeding higher termite", Nature 450, 560-565 (22 November 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature06269

Andreas Brune, "Microbiology: Woodworker's digest", Nature 450, 487-488 (22 November 2007) | doi:10.1038/450487a; Published online 21 November 2007

Biopact: U.S. Dept. of Energy to invest $375 million in 3 Bioenergy Research Centers - June 27, 2007

Biopact: Joint Genome Institute announces 2008 genome sequencing targets with focus on bioenergy and carbon cycle - June 12, 2007

Biopact: Super-fermenting fungus genome sequenced, to be harnessed for biofuels - March 05, 2007



Article continues