There is Still Some Good News

There is Still Some Good News

Clyde E. Witt As we near year’s end, it seems that good news and not-so-good news are constantly fighting for our attention. It’s as if the last story you read will be the harbinger of what next year will bring.

The economy is so-so. Material handling, depending on the segment you work in, is looking good. Online and retail shopping is up. Package delivery numbers are up. The housing market is dropping faster than Enron stock. Auto sales seem to be making a pit stop. And so it goes.

I figured I’d look for the turnabout story of 2007 in material handling so we could go out on a high note. My choice turns out to be the wood pallet industry’s nemesis, the Asian longhorned beetle.

I haven’t written about the bad-news bug for a while. It seems that our friend, who single-antennaly helped launch international regulatory efforts, now has the potential to help save the planet. How’s that for some good turnabout news?

Just when we thought the little guy was going to destroy the business of shipping wood pallets and other solid-wood packaging material overseas, scientists have found a use for the critter formerly known as Pest.

It’s going to require the ultimate sacrifice on the part of our spotted friend; however, it appears the beetle is one of a family of insects that may provide the biochemical means to a greener biofuel future. The bellies of these tiny beasts actually harbor a gold mine of microbes that have now been tapped as a rich source of enzymes for improving the conversion of wood or waste biomass to valuable biofuels.

As reported in a recent issue of Science Daily (www.sciencedaily.com/ releases/2007/11/071121145002.htm), DNA sequencing by U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI) scientists was key to identifying the genetic structures that comprise the tools termites use.

Like cows, termites have a series of stomachs, each harboring a distinct community of microbes under precisely defined conditions. These bugs within bugs are tasked with particular steps along the conversion pathway of woody polymers to sugars that can then be fermented into fuels, such as ethanol.

Currently among the scores of projects in the sequencing queue at DOE JGI are metagenomes from contents of the Tammar wallaby (not known to be a threat to wood pallets, mate) forestomach, and the Asian longhorned beetle gut, which promise to be treasure troves of enzymes involved in cellulose deconstruction.

So, there ya go. Leave it to science to find a way to turn a bug’s belly into fuel for a VW Beetle.

Meanwhile, a select group of editors here at Penton Media gathered around and went through a year’s worth of Material Handling Management magazines to ferret out (to keep this within the animal theme) what we thought were the best stories of this past year. Enjoy.

Here’s hoping 2008 brings peace and prosperity to all.

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