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Bugs to biofuels – Audio

Bugs to biofuels

Gina Lewin, Research Assistant, Currie Lab
Department of Bacteriology
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Phone (608) 262-7538

3:05 – Total Time
0:17 – Challenge to break down biomass
0:49 – The leaf cutter ant
1:22 – Answers in ant trash
1:53 – Microbial communities
2:15 – Why this is different
2:47 – Ants with a Twitter account
2:58 – Lead out


Sevie Kenyon: The path to biofuels led by bugs, we’re visiting today with Gina Lewin, Department of Bacteriology University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and I’m Sevie Kenyon. Gina, tell us what you’re doing with insects related to biofuels.
Gina Lewin: I’m interested in how we can breakdown plant biomass for making biofuels, so breaking down plant biomass is really important if we want to make biofuels from the non food parts of plants like the stalks of the corn, or from poplar trees or different prairie grasses. What I’m doing is looking at insect systems that have evolved to be really good at breaking down plant biomass into simple sugars.
Sevie Kenyon: Gina can you describe the system you’re working in?
Gina Lewin: So the system that I focus on is the leaf cutter ant system. So the ant collects the leaf and brings it back to the colony and the ant feeds it to a fungus, and the fungus eats the leaf and then the ant eats the fungus. But the fungus leaves behind most of the more complex polymers in the leaf and the ant moves those into these refuse dump piles that are kind of like their trash piles.
Sevie Kenyon: So what goes on, on in these compost piles that’s so interesting to the biofuel world.
Gina Lewin: So in these compost piles, these refuse dump piles, there’s specialized but complex communities of bacteria and fungi that break down the remaining leaf material. These bacterium fungi are specialized to break down the more difficult to degrade parts of the leaf, and those are the parts of the plant that we want to be better at breaking down to make sustainable and economical biofuels.
Sevie Kenyon: And Gina what have you found so far?
Gina Lewin: What I found is that microbial communities are really good at breaking down plant material. We found in the lab, when microbes work together they’re often better at breaking down plant material when they’re on their own.
Sevie Kenyon: In making biofuels, what would be different about using these systems than what is currently used?
Gina Lewin: The corn ethanol that’s currently on the market at gas stations is made from the kernel of the corn, but to make better biofuels that are more sustainable, that are more carbon neutral and that don’t compete with the food supply we want to be able to use the more complex part of the plant, the corn stalk or the switch grass or poplar trees and that’s more similar to the materials in the refuse dump of the ants.
Sevie Kenyon: For those who are socially enabled, what kind of information can they get about your program?
Gina Lewin: Our ant colony in the lab has their own twitter page. If you put into twitter, Currie Lab Ants, you can find our twitter page and follow updates on the research going on in our lab.
Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting with Gina Lewin, Department of Bacteriology University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and I’m Sevie Kenyon.