Termite study

July 14, 2011

The Column

The Column, The Column-07-01-2011, Volume 7, Issue 12

A study of the processes that termites use to break down plant cell walls could provide new enzymatic pretreatment processes for the production of biofuels.

A study of the processes that termites use to break down plant cell walls could provide new enzymatic pretreatment processes for the production of biofuels.

Termites are highly effective at degrading plant biomass including lignin but the process by which they do this is still not well understood. A study published in Biotechnology for Biofuels,1 has investigated the structural modification caused by termites in the lignin biomolecular assembly in softwood tissues crucial for cell-wall degradation. Termite-digested and native softwood tissues were compared using 13C crosspolarization magic angle spinning and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, Flash pyrolysis with gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (Py-GC–MS), and Py-GC–MS in the presence of tetramethylammonium hydroxide (Py-TMAH)-GC–MS.

Spectroscopic analysis, confirmed by the Py-GC–MS data indicated dehydroxylation and modification of selective intermonomer side-chain linkages. Moreover, Py-TMAH-GC–MS analysis showed significant differences in the product distribution, which the researchers report strongly suggests that the structural modification in lignin could be associated with the formation of additional condensed interunit linkages. The study concluded that these results provide insight into lignin-unlocking mechanisms for understanding plant cell-wall deconstruction, which could be useful in the development of new processes mimicking the termite system for biochemical conversion of lignocellulosic biomass to fuels and chemicals.

1. J. Ke, Biotechnology for Biofuels, 4(17) (2011).

This story originally appeared in The Column. Click here to view that issue.