Scientists have discovered that a wood-eating crustacean may hold the secret to unlocking a huge source of renewable energy from wood, according to a new study published in Nature Communications. Gribbles, small, translucent marine crustaceans who feed on the sugars found in planks and logs, possess a natural mechanism to digest and release all the nutrients in wood.
Gribbles have what researchers call a “sterile” digestive system, meaning they do not rely on bacteria for digestion. Researchers were interested in how they were able to break down wood and access its nutrients without any help. They found that the species uses hemocyanins, which carry oxygen in the blood of invertebrates, to break down lignin, the nearly impermeable polyphenol coat that surrounds wood sugars.
In the lab, wood samples treated with hemocyanins yielded twice as many sugars as wood pretreated with regular industrial chemicals used for biofuel extraction. This means using gribbles as a model to extract biofuels from wood could have lasting impacts, since this process is cleaner and cheaper than industrial techniques now in use. “Woody plant bio mass,” said the team in a press release, “is the most abundant renewable carbon resource on the planet, and, unlike using food crops to make biofuels, its use doesn’t come into conflict with global food security.”