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Elephants and Ethanol

April 18, 2006

To reduce our dependence on oil, scientists are renewing their efforts to make alternative fuels like ethanol economically viable. Here we learn how elephant dung might help.


Better ethanol through elephants. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Ethanol from plants like corn is a promising alternative fuel. Now, scientists in the Netherlands have developed a more efficient way to produce it – using a gene from a fungus found in elephant dung. Industrial microbiologist Ton van Maris of the Delft University of Technology explains that baker’s yeast can convert certain plant sugars into ethanol. But it couldn’t metabolize the indigestible wood sugars – until now.

TON VAN MARIS (Delft University of Technology):
By taking this gene from fungus we isolated from the elephant dung and putting it into baker’s yeast, we have created a yeast strain that under laboratory conditions, can produce almost twice the amount of ethanol from plant biomass as a normal yeast strain would do.

He says that because elephants eat so much roughage, their digestive tracts are full of micro-organisms that can tackle the tougher sugars. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.