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Enzymes, ants and bio fuel – Audio

Enzymes, ants and bio fuel

Frank Aylward, Research Fellow
Department of Bacteriology
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Phone: (608) 265-0689

2:59 – Total Time
0:17 – New enzymes discovered
0:49 – What is and enzyme
1:01 – What makes this discovery different
1:27 – A set of entirely new enzymes
2:05 – Much like brewing beer
2:32 – A few years to go
2:49 – Lead out


Sevie Kenyon: Frank, can you introduce us to this new enzyme you found?

Frank Aylward: These enzymes are produced by a fungus cultivated by leafcutter ants. So the name of the fungus is Leucoagaricus gongylophorus, but it is cultivated by leafcutter ants in Central and South America. It’s essentially a mushroom, and it produces a lot of these enzymes, a lot of these proteins that are very useful for taking plant biomass and converting it into simple sugars. And we’re very interested in finding novel enzymes that can be used to degrade plant biomass and convert it into sugars.

Sevie Kenyon: Can you tell us what an enzyme is?

Frank Aylward: An enzyme is a protein that is a catalyst, and in this case, it will degrade plant biomass and convert it into a simple sugar.

Sevie Kenyon: And this enzyme you discovered, what makes it different?

Frank Aylward: Well these enzymes have never been identified before. So it’s a novel genome with novel enzymes that have not been characterized before. We think that the enzymes are particularly useful for the degradation of plant biomass because ants, leafcutter ants are extremely good at taking huge volumes of plant biomass and converting it into nutrients for themselves.

Sevie Kenyon: How many different kinds of enzymes are there?

Frank Aylward: We identified over two-hundred total. So we have a lot of enzymes that are sort of working towards a common goal. It’s like a team is working towards this common goal of winning a game. So with the enzymes, it’s very difficult to evaluate a specific enzyme individually because they all work together, they’re all synergistic. So that’s why we really think it’s interesting that we found this set of about two-hundred or so enzymes, because altogether they are degrading plant biomass very efficiently, and that’s why we’re really interested in the fungus- garden ecosystem itself.

Sevie Kenyon: Do you think these enzymes will come in buckets, and they’ll be dumped on corn stover? How might that look?

Frank Aylward: The actual fermentation process is probably going to be very similar to what you might expect at a brewery. In that respect, it’s not all that different than what many of us are very familiar with. I think this is a great example of how by analyzing ants, by looking at leafcutter ants in Panama, we’re actually able to come up with some enzymes which may have a tangible impact on our lives here in Wisconsin.

Sevie Kenyon: Frank, how long do you think it will be before we’re actually using these enzymes?

Frank Aylward: Well, you know it could be very soon, it could be a few years from now; it really depends on the future directions of this research. So I think the next step is to start testing these enzymes for the degradation of plant biomass, and you know how soon we can actually start using these enzymes for the production of bio fuel.

Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting with Frank Aylward. Department of bacteriology, University of Wisconsin in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Madison, Wisconsin, and I am Sevie Kenyon.