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

June 10, 2013 |

The one-animal Viking-like biomass destructor system

Limnoria_2WEB-main-pic2-300x251Accordingly, there’s a single organism out there that has attracted understandable attention — because it has what we call a sterile gut. Now, every human baby is born with one — but we lose it in the first days of life as the bacteria move in. That’s the typical path for almost all organisms.

But not the gribble. It’s a microscopic worm that causes wood rot, at sea, for piers, jetties and rowboats. If you’ve been in Seattle lately, you’ve probably heard a great deal of grumbling about the perilous state of the seawall which holds up the fill dirt upon which the buildings and roads of Alaskan Way and Western Avenue are built. Responsible for the rotting seawall is that pesky gribble.

But the gribble has huge fans in the world of bioprocessing. Because of that sterile gut. The gribble maintains a clean kitchen, as it were, even after ingesting all that wood.

And if you have already surmised that gettin’ lovely low-cost renewable sugars out of pesky wood, and digestive tract sterility, represents a powerful combination, you get a gold star.

Yes, that’s the gribble. A pest that knows how to munch fabulous amounts of wood as a food source, and down-convert them to the sugars used to power life. Sugars that can be fermented into alcohols, or hydrocarbon fuels suitable for internal combustion engines.

The gribble’s trick? Doing all that conversion with its own, native, genetically-endowed portfolio of enzymes — and apparently, no help required from a fantastically complex team of gut-inhabiting, fellow-traveling microbes.

Although, it should be pointed out, the gribbles do occasionally return to some of their old burrows and, rather ungraciously, devour any microorganisms they find that have taken up residence in their bore-holes.

In today’s Digest, we learn 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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