Shipworms are some of a very few animals in the world that can eat wood. They also play an important role in nature by recycling the carbon in wood in the world’s oceans. Shipworms are related to clams, and it is estimated that they devour between 2 - 5% of the world’s woody plant material. The goal of this research is to understand how shipworms eat wood. Digesting wood’s complex structure isn’t easy. Scientists know that relatively large enzymes alone cannot break down wood, because wood molecules are packed too tightly together for enzymes to enter. Shipworms farm bacteria in their gills, and these bacteria have recently been found to produce very small compounds that may move into the shipworm gut where the small compounds can make powerful oxygen radicals to digest the wood. Making the oxygen radicals is proposed as the first step needed to break open the wood structure into smaller pieces. Then, in a second step, enzymes can completely digest the wood. Previously, the compounds that can make the oxygen radicals were found only in some types of fungi that also digest wood. Scientists believe that studying this shipworm chemistry may open up new knowledge about how carbon is cycled in our oceans, and may also lead to new discoveries on ways to make biofuels and renewable materials. The researchers involved in this project also believe strongly in supporting young, underrepresented female scientists and will be running educational opportunities for girls in a local town. Contact Drs. Goodell or Shipway for further information.
Department of Microbiology