CAN ANTS SAVE THE WORLD?

Today I’m posting a link to an article I wrote for Isthmus, the weekly newspaper in Madison WI.

This was their lead story for the Earth Day issue, and I’m quite proud of it.

The long, windowless room is uncomfortably warm and humid. The counters and shelves are filled with Tupperware boxes, like the ones people use to store sweaters under their beds. But these boxes are filled with gray mold and crawling with leaf-cutter ants.

Don’t run for a can of Raid. Instead, cross your fingers and hope that the keeper of these ants, UW-Madison associate professor of bacteriology Cameron Currie, can tease secret recipes for cheap biofuel out of these teeming ant tunnels.

Currie, 39, a tall and soft-spoken Canadian, bends over an open box, stares intently for a moment, then dips a finger into the spongy mass and scoops out something that looks like a couple of gray jelly beans. It’s actually an ant queen. The entire colony relies on her, and, as gas prices rise, we may be depending on her as well.

Leaf-cutter ants are some of the most successful animals on the planet. In the rainforests of South America, they rule. A single underground colony could fill a two-car garage, and the ants inside can outweigh an elephant.

They live by slicing up leaves and hauling them into underground chambers to feed the vast gardens of fungus they use for both food and furniture. In the process, each colony breaks down the cellulose of plant cell walls on a massive scale.

“The ants are doing what we’d like to be able to do,” explains Currie. “If we discover the enzymes they are using to break down plant cell walls, those enzymes could be integrated into an industrial process to make biofuel.”

The Department of Energy is banking on Currie’s speculation. In 2007, the DOE decided to invest big in biofuels, funding three bioenergy research centers around the country, including the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at the UW-Madison.

Click HERE to read the rest.

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