And it’s too early to tell whether the termite will ever provide genes or information that will enable biofuel production. Termite research could instead provide a cautionary tale about the difficulties of replicating nature on a political schedule. It may be faster and easier to come up with a comprehensive energy policy—investing in energy efficiency, changing personal behavior, and working with other large oil consumers to control prices—than to create a cellulose economy out of the termite gut.
Termites certainly have their critics. One is Harvey Blanch, a professor of chemical engineering at UC Berkeley and the chief science and technology officer at the Department of Energy’s Joint Bio-Energy Institute, in Emeryville, California (where Hugenholtz also conducts research). “Those microbes eat pâté!” Blanch said. By the time wood reaches the termite’s third gut, he explained, it has been chewed to a fine consistency and soaked in the highly alkaline second stomach; the gut microbes don’t have to work very hard to break it down. Pretreating wood in similar ways on an industrial scale would be ridiculously expensive, he believes. He thinks the termite has been overhyped, and sees this as a reflection of unrealistically high hopes for quick, painless replacements for gasoline.
Blanch has experienced the pitfalls of research driven by political goals. In the early 1970s, he worked on creating faux meat products from petroleum, which was then thought to be a cheap way to feed the world. For example, single-celled “chicken” proteins were produced by yeasts that fed on oil by-products, and then draped around plastic bones. But when the 1973 oil crisis hit, the cost of the raw material soared, effectively ending the petroprotein business. Blanch then shifted to cellulosic ethanol; the project was progressing until President Reagan killed it, in the mid-1980s. Now, he’s at once hopeful that we will one day be able to engineer novel organisms and make better fuels, and wary of putting too much faith in quick technological solutions. “Given the scale at which we need to operate, it’s hard to imagine any magic organism that will do the trick,” he told me.
Several years ago, government labs set a goal of producing cellulosic ethanol for $1.33 a gallon by 2012, but Blanch cautions that the retail price could be $6 or $8 a gallon if the cost of the raw materials rises, and he thinks a realistic deadline is at least 10 years away. Perhaps because of his earlier experiences, he fears that projects that fail to deliver quickly are at risk, which puts a lot of pressure on both the Bioenergy Research Centers and individual researchers.