Researchers led by UMass Amherst solve 2,000-year-old mystery of the shipworm

By Daegan Miller
University of Massachusetts Amherst
June 5, 2024
Category: Wood, Paper & Green Building
Region: United States, US East

They bedeviled ancient Greek navies and helped shipwreck Christopher Columbus… but until now, scientists have been unable to pinpoint exactly how shipworms—a family of mollusks—are able to cause such damage. A team of researchers, jointly led by the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the University of Plymouth, along with collaborators from the University of Maine and UMass Chan Medical School, have discovered that a population of symbiotic microbes, living in an overlooked sub-organ of the gut called the “typhlosole,” have the ability to secrete the enzymes needed to digest lignin—the toughest part of wood. …Not only does this research help to solve a longstanding mystery, but the findings may also have important practical application. Biotech companies are searching for new enzymes that can digest recalcitrant substrates more efficiently than current bio-industrial processes allow, and new sources of enzymes that can open the structure of biomass residues are very important in growing this field.

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