The Little Engineer That Could

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Shipworms have been the bane of ships, ports and dykes for thousands of years.

The marine creatures are the termites of the sea: They are capable of digesting wood – a feat that few animals can do.

Measuring up to six inches in length, they have gone down in history for wrecking San Francisco’s Bay a hundred years ago and contributing to the destruction of the Spanish Armada by the English in 1588.

Even so, American poet and naturalist Henry David Thoreau paid homage to them in the poem “Through All the Fates.”

Now, scientists have discovered how the shipworm – technically, a mollusk species – is able to consume wood.

In their paper, a research team dissected and analyzed the insides of Teredo navalis shipworms to understand their timber-gobbling abilities.

Wood is not easy to digest because it contains a very tough component known as lignin, requiring special enzymes to break it down.

The team found that the enzymes weren’t produced by the intestines or the stomach, but originated from a sub-organ, typhlosole.

A closer examination showed that bacteria known as Alteromonas produced the special enzyme, a finding that underscores a symbiotic relationship between shipworms and microbes.

The study challenges previous assumptions that the shipworm’s guts were “nearly sterile,” while also underscoring the practical applications of the mollusk’s ability.

“(Shipworms) are found throughout the world’s oceans and not only have they changed history, they are also ecosystem engineers and play a fundamental role in cycling carbon in aquatic environments,” co-author Reuben Shipway said in a statement.

Shipway and his colleagues explained that this discovery interests biotech companies seeking new methods to break down certain materials.

Each year, massive amounts of wood enter the oceans, with mangroves alone contributing nine gigatons of biomass, 70 percent of which is digested by shipworms. Understanding this process helps climate scientists refine models of carbon dioxide release from wood decomposition, the BBC Wildlife magazine explained.

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