A giant crawling brain: the jaw-dropping world of termites

In July 2008, I rented a small yellow car in Tucson, Arizona, and drove it south towards Tombstone. My passengers included an entomologist and two microbial geneticists, and I was following a white van with government plates carrying nine more geneticists. We also had 500 plastic bags, a vacuum flask of dry ice, and 350 cryogenic vials, each the size and shape of a pencil stub. We had two days to get 10,000 termites.

The goal was to sequence the genes of the microbes in their guts. Because termites are famously good at eating wood, those genes were attractive to government labs trying to turn wood and grass into biofuels (“grassoline”). The white van and the geneticists all belonged to the US Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute. Perhaps by seeing exactly how termites break down wood, we’d be able to do it too…

 

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