Tech: On the Drawing Board

Breaking Down Is Hard to Do

By Nicole Scarmeas

Scientists at the Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute and several universities are looking at microbes that could help make cheap cellulosic ethanol—biofuel made from tough plant parts like corn stalks and leaves. Microbes swimming in the guts of cows, termites, Asian long-horned beetles, and Tammar wallabies (above) produce enzymes that break down the fibrous materials into simple sugars. By cloning these digestive enzymes and inserting them into transgenic biofuel crops, scientists hope to make plants that will naturally break themselves down once they’re harvested.

Issue 25

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