Scientists at the Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute and several universities are looking at microbes that could help make cheap cellulosic ethanol—biofuel made from tough plant parts like corn stalks and leaves. Microbes swimming in the guts of cows, termites, Asian long-horned beetles, and Tammar wallabies produce enzymes that break down the fibrous materials into simple sugars. By cloning these digestive enzymes and inserting them into transgenic biofuel crops, scientists hope to make plants that will naturally break themselves down once they’re harvested.

Story by Nicole Scarmeas. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008.