Gribbles — why these wood-feasting microbial Vikings might be energy stars

June 10, 2013 |

gribbleIn the delicatessen known as the ocean, only one little critter brings all his own tools for breaking down wood into food.

That’s why this friendless coastal raider has caught the eye of biofuels research teams.

It takes a village to raise a child, as the saying goes.

A village of microorganisms that is. No collection of human cells, also known as “a person,” is complete without its unique library of microorganisms. For every human cell, you are currently playing host to 10 foreign microbial cells – collectively known as your “microbiome”.

Which is to say that, as you read this, roughly 90% of the cells that do the work that makes you, you – are microbial interlopers, many of them occupied in the daily business of gnashing food into the materials that sustain life.

The Village of You

it-takes-a-villageNo matter the identity of your most recent Best Friend Forever, your microbiome is your true community of BFFs, living as you do in the soup of foods and pathogens better known as Planet Earth.

In fact, what we generally assume, during our first few days of human life, to be a process of nourishment and establishment of the mother-child connection, via caressing and feeding, is from a biological point of view something quite different. It’s a sharing of the collection of bacteria and other microbes, which the mother lavishes on her baby and thereby ensures its survival.

The microbiome is incredibly complex. Like a fingerprint, no two are exactly alike. In fact, they are so highly differentiated that only about one in eight microbes that live on your left hand also live happily on your right hand. Even the opposite sides of your teeth have completely independent, differentiated  colonies of little swimmers that take on all kinds of tasks. They work together to perform a task, and combinations of colonies together and symbiotically perform great undertakings.

It’s part of why it is so complex to understand the breakdown of biomass. And why microbial friends that can shoulder a bigger share of the task — or do it all on their own — are highly prized in the world of bioscience. They bring efficiency — and simplicity.

In today’s Digest, we look beyond the Village of You and into the Village of Breaking Things Down, and at wood biomass in particular. We visit with a seafaring worm species known as the gribble, why it is a hot subject of research, what peering into its enzyme collection has taught us, the technology used to do so — and the implications for biofuels. Stopping by the Seattle waterfront, the University of York, Portsmouth Harbor, and down where only x-ray microscopes can see — the whole story, for you, by clicking the page links below.

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