Termites: It’s All in the DNA

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After they finished mapping the human genome, the genetic blueprint for what makes us who we are, researchers have moved onto learning about other life forms, including termites. I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet. We’ve got a lot to learn from the genetic material of the microbes that live within a termite’s gut. Scientists have discovered that these tiny organisms produce hydrogen as they help the insect digest its diet of plant matter. And hydrogen is an energy source that could potentially replace fossil fuels.

If we understand better about how nature is already catalyzing the change of plant material into molecular hydrogen, then we may be able to, in controlled settings, degrade plant materials on a larger scale to produce hydrogen that could be of use for the current energy needs.

Dr. Jared Leadbetter of the California Institute of Technology studies the microbial community within a termite’s gut. He says that in order to actually produce hydrogen the way those microbes do, we need to understand them better. And the key to the mystery may lie in their genes.

We know that hydrogen is a major intermediate in the termite hindgut. But our understanding of that process is limited by an inability to study the organisms that carry out these processes.

Dr. Leadbetter and his colleagues are at work sequencing the genome of those termite gut microbes.

We may be able to access a large amount of information encoded by these organisms very, very rapidly. And this may facilitate both cultivation of those organisms-by learning about how those organisms may work-but may allow us just to remove components, certain genes that encode certain enzymes in these organisms and place them in organisms that we can work with in a laboratory so that we can study these processes much more rapidly.

Pulse of the Planet is made possible in part by the National Science Foundation and Virginia Tech, inventing the future through a hands-on approach to education and research.

Termites: It's All in the DNA

The microbes in a termite's gut may provide a clue to hydrogen power.
Air Date:08/30/2016
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Transcript:

Music

After they finished mapping the human genome, the genetic blueprint for what makes us who we are, researchers have moved onto learning about other life forms, including termites. I'm Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet. We've got a lot to learn from the genetic material of the microbes that live within a termite's gut. Scientists have discovered that these tiny organisms produce hydrogen as they help the insect digest its diet of plant matter. And hydrogen is an energy source that could potentially replace fossil fuels.

If we understand better about how nature is already catalyzing the change of plant material into molecular hydrogen, then we may be able to, in controlled settings, degrade plant materials on a larger scale to produce hydrogen that could be of use for the current energy needs.

Dr. Jared Leadbetter of the California Institute of Technology studies the microbial community within a termite's gut. He says that in order to actually produce hydrogen the way those microbes do, we need to understand them better. And the key to the mystery may lie in their genes.

We know that hydrogen is a major intermediate in the termite hindgut. But our understanding of that process is limited by an inability to study the organisms that carry out these processes.

Dr. Leadbetter and his colleagues are at work sequencing the genome of those termite gut microbes.

We may be able to access a large amount of information encoded by these organisms very, very rapidly. And this may facilitate both cultivation of those organisms-by learning about how those organisms may work-but may allow us just to remove components, certain genes that encode certain enzymes in these organisms and place them in organisms that we can work with in a laboratory so that we can study these processes much more rapidly.

Pulse of the Planet is made possible in part by the National Science Foundation and Virginia Tech, inventing the future through a hands-on approach to education and research.