Caterpillars: Another Book in the Library

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ambience: Rainforest, Costa Rica

In a diverse ecosystem like the Central American rainforest, virtually every species is a treasure trove of vital information – a reference book in a living library – if we know how to read it. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Dan Janzen is a professor of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the ecology of the Cost Rican rainforest. He tells us that caterpillars could hold a clue which would help us degrade toxic substances.

“We can look at the forest, know the forest has many different kinds of leaves with many kinds of, of nasty chemicals in it, and then say, ‘all right, if this plant has got these nasty chemicals in it, now who eats that plant? Who degrades those leaves? Who digests those leaves?’ Notice that caterpillars do. Then we look inside the caterpillar, and we get the bacterial community who lives inside that caterpillar and then we think about growing those industrially so you have large quantities. And then they can be used as the degrading process for whatever this chemical is, whether it’s caffeine or nicotine, or any one of the other important chemicals that we have too much of, that we want to get rid of. This process goes on in nature all the time. Think about the turpentine in a pine tree for example. If you go out and look at the soil underneath a pine tree it’s not full of turpentine, but the tree is producing turpentine all the time. Well, what’s happening to it? Well, it’s being degraded by the soil organisms that are underneath it. Well, there are things that eat pine needles. Now, you take a pine needle and put in your mouth and chew it up, and you see what it tastes like, all right. Well there are caterpillars who eat nothing but pine needles. Well, would you know, without knowing anything more, that they’ve got in them a bacterial community that can handle turpentine and other horrible resins that are in pine needles. So that’s the place to go and look for a bacterial community that you could then manipulate and use as part of a biodegradation process.”

Pulse of the Planet is presented with support provided by the National Science Foundation.

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Caterpillars: Another Book in the Library

Caterpillars are part of a living library, rich in information about biodegradation.
Air Date:10/31/2002
Scientist:
Transcript:


music
ambience: Rainforest, Costa Rica

In a diverse ecosystem like the Central American rainforest, virtually every species is a treasure trove of vital information - a reference book in a living library - if we know how to read it. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Dan Janzen is a professor of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the ecology of the Cost Rican rainforest. He tells us that caterpillars could hold a clue which would help us degrade toxic substances.

"We can look at the forest, know the forest has many different kinds of leaves with many kinds of, of nasty chemicals in it, and then say, 'all right, if this plant has got these nasty chemicals in it, now who eats that plant? Who degrades those leaves? Who digests those leaves?' Notice that caterpillars do. Then we look inside the caterpillar, and we get the bacterial community who lives inside that caterpillar and then we think about growing those industrially so you have large quantities. And then they can be used as the degrading process for whatever this chemical is, whether it's caffeine or nicotine, or any one of the other important chemicals that we have too much of, that we want to get rid of. This process goes on in nature all the time. Think about the turpentine in a pine tree for example. If you go out and look at the soil underneath a pine tree it's not full of turpentine, but the tree is producing turpentine all the time. Well, what's happening to it? Well, it's being degraded by the soil organisms that are underneath it. Well, there are things that eat pine needles. Now, you take a pine needle and put in your mouth and chew it up, and you see what it tastes like, all right. Well there are caterpillars who eat nothing but pine needles. Well, would you know, without knowing anything more, that they've got in them a bacterial community that can handle turpentine and other horrible resins that are in pine needles. So that's the place to go and look for a bacterial community that you could then manipulate and use as part of a biodegradation process."

Pulse of the Planet is presented with support provided by the National Science Foundation.

music