Ocean 'termites' could be key to biofuels

Once the scourge of the seven seas because of their appetite for wooden sailing ships, gribbles could hold the secret to turning wood into biofuels.

Once the scourge of the seven seas because of their appetite for wooden sailing ships, gribbles could hold the secret to turning wood into biofuels.

Wood-eating gribbles are isopods, a kind of crustacean, and are related to land animals such as woodlice and pill bugs. ((Simon Cragg/Graham Malyon/Institute of Marine Sciences, University of Portsmouth))
British researchers say the enzymes in the guts of the tiny marine isopods could lead to a chemical process that can covert woody plant fibres into usable fuel.

Gribbles are considered a pest: the ocean's termites. They can eat and digest the wood in sailing ships and, more importantly to modern-day sailors, piers and docks.

Biologists at the Universities of York and Portsmouth in the U.K. examined the gribble's genes, especially those expressed in the digestive system.

They found that the bug's digestive tract is full of enzymes that break down the polymers that make up wood, among them a chemical that degrades cellulose and has never been seen before in animals.

Termites and other animals that eat wood rely on bacteria in their guts to break down tough woody fibres into sugars their bodies can use. Gribbles can do this without any helpful digestive microbes.

"This may provide clues as to how this conversion could be performed in an industrial setting," said Simon McQueen-Mason of York, in a statement.

The research appears this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.