Termite Bellies and Biofuels

Scientist Falk Warnecke's research into termite digestion may hold solutions to our energy crisis

Termite digestion of wood pulp is the subject of research into potential new biofuels (iStockphoto)

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Warnecke's relationship with termites has the mark of a genial obsession. On weekend walks through Tilden Park in the Berkeley hills, Warnecke slips sticks and handfuls of soft forest litter into his pockets. He takes the debris back to his apartment and sprinkles it into a terrarium, home to a few hundred termites he's collected from the California wild. These insects are not for splitting apart, but simply to care for. "I don't really know what to feed them," he said, "but I think they are happy." Warnecke is a dutiful curator of the tiny; he serves small organisms and their microscopic inner seas.

In the lab, Warnecke swept up a pile of now-thawed termite bits with his hand and tossed them into a biohazard bin . He'd finished degutting his first set—fifty per tube—and went to retrieve a fresh collection from the freezer on the other side of the room. He is violent with them, but his affection for termites is obvious. His work's green energy potential, however, leaves Warnecke mostly unmoved. He'll happily debate biofuel feasibility, but says the topics don't animate him.

He opened the new tube of termites and poured a small pile onto the metal block. He'd fly the next day to Europe to give a round of talks on his termite work to academics eager to be on the forefront of cellulose-degradation research. "It's nice to have an applied aspect and I hope it will be a useful contribution," said Warnecke, seeming a bit weary of all the excitement. "But I'm first of all interested in the basic science, the microbial diversity and the symbiosis." Then he picked up another termite, and split it in two.


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