From examining the genes expressed in the guts of the gribble, researchers have demonstrated that a gribble’s digestive system contains enzymes that could hold the key to converting wood and straw into liquid biofuels.  Yes, there is such a creature called the gribble, it’s a really small crustacean scientifically named Limnoria quadripunctata.

The Gribble aka Limnoria quadripunctata. Click image for more information.

Since the dawn of going to sea in wooden ships seafarers have been plagued by wood-eating gribble that destroyed the ships, and these creatures continue to wreak damage on wooden piers and docks in coastal communities worldwide.

A research team headed by Professor Simon McQueen-Mason of the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products in the Department of Biology and Professor Neil Bruce at York University, and Dr Simon Cragg at Portsmouth University reveal that the gribble’s digestive tract is dominated by enzymes that attack the polymers that make up wood.  The research is published in the March 23, 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The gribble’s claim to fame is its digestive tract holds one of the most abundant cellulose degrading enzymes, which have never been seen before in animals.  Unlike termites and other wood-eating animals, the gribbles have no helpful microbes in their digestive system. This means that they must possess all of the enzymes needed to convert wood into sugars within themselves.

Professor McQueen-Mason explains the research activity, “Most animals that consume wood have digestive tracts packed with microbes that help to digest the cell wall polymers, but the gribble’s is sterile, so it must produce all the enzymes needed to break down the wood itself. We have done extensive DNA sequencing of the genes expressed in its gut, and we have detected cellulases never seen in animals before. We want to see if it’s possible to adapt the gribble digestive enzymes for industrial purposes.”

The scientists at York are now studying the enzymes to establish how they work, and whether they can be adapted to industrial applications. The press release suggests “Perhaps one day soon seafarers will be sailing the seas on ships powered with biofuels produced with gribble enzymes.”

Professor McQueen-Mason said, “This may provide clues as to how this conversion could be performed in an industrial setting.”

The research is backed by the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre, a £26M research investment by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and has six research programs at universities and research institutes.

Duncan Eggar, BBSRC Bioenergy Champion, said, “The world needs to quickly reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and sustainably produced bioenergy offers the potential to rapidly introduce liquid transport fuels into our current energy mix.”

The team has already zeroed in onglycosyl hydrolase genes and found hemocyanin transcripts were highly abundant in the hepatopancreas transcriptome. Based on recent studies indicating that these proteins may function as phenoloxidases in isopods, the paper discusses a possible role for hemocyanins in lignin decomposition.  There might be the key.

This research is just back from the very sharp edge of research.  Yet the realization those crustaceans have enzyme chemistry that may be useful is a very intuitive thought.  How the biochemistry might have a role is yet to be seen.  But coastal folks know these critters can certainly eat away wood that’s laced with all sorts of inhibitors from creosote to arsenic compounds.  The things these enzymes might take apart might be an incredibly large list.

This just might be an early look at a breakthrough.


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