Gribble Power: From Nuisance to New Science

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Hundreds of years ago, it used to eat the bottoms of sailing ships. Now, it could help keep the bio-energy industry afloat.

It’s called the gribble. A marine isopod with a taste for wood (think woodlouse), the four-spotted variety called Limnoria quadripunctata used to burrow through the hulls of wooden ships, causing no end of grief for medieval sailors. In fact, lore holds Christopher Columbus was stranded in Jamaica for a year after his ship suffered a particularly nasty gribbling.

But gribbles have just made the transition from pest to scientific marvel. Studies undertaken by the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products in the University of York, England, are investigating exactly how the gribble’s stomach is able to break down the complex polysaccharides in cellulose into sugars that can be fermented. The end product would be an energy-packed liquid biofuel – in other words, a potential replacement for gasoline.

The gribble’s digestive enzymes are unlike any seen in animals before, and experts hope that by replicating them a new generation of super-efficient biofuels could result. The technology is unlikely to alleviate the food or fuel crisis (our money is on algae) but it’s yet another remarkable example of how the natural world has already solved a problem that had us stumped…even if it is a little hard to be bested by a woodlouse.

image: mike baird

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.