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Web Date: September 4, 2008

Fungus Degrades Lignin In Bug Guts

Harnessing enzymes could lead to improved conversion of biomass into fuels
Department: Science & Technology | Collection: Critter Chemistry
The Asian longhorned beetle, which can be a few inches in length, degrades lignin with the aid of a fungus in its gut.
Credit: Joshua Peter Kaffer
beetle1
 
The Asian longhorned beetle, which can be a few inches in length, degrades lignin with the aid of a fungus in its gut.
Credit: Joshua Peter Kaffer

In the gut of a beetle lies a fungus that helps the insect digest lignin, researchers have found (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2008, 105, 12932). The discovery could lead to more efficient and milder ways to convert plants into biofuels.

Lignin is a natural aromatic polymer that protects a plant's sugar-containing cellulose and hemicellulose from most microbial attacks. It also vexes biofuel researchers who want easy access to the sugars.

Ming Tien, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Pennsylvania State University, and colleagues fed wood to the Asian longhorned beetle, which can bore into live trees, and the Pacific dampwood termite, which usually eats only dead wood.

Analysis of the insects' feces by thermochemolysis using tetramethylammonium hydroxide demonstrated that lignin had undergone propyl side-chain oxidation and demethylation in both species. For the termite, the researchers also observed aromatic ring hydroxylation.

Tien and colleagues identified the fungus in the beetle's gut, but they have not yet found it in the termite's gut. They also found that chemical changes following lignin degradation in the beetle are similar to the changes observed in previously reported studies on lignin degradation by white-rot fungus. The researchers suggest that enzymes produced by a consortium of fungi and bacteria are likely responsible for overall lignin degradation by the insects.

 
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