The tiny gribble — less than an inch long — lives in coastal marine environments and feasts upon wood. It gobbles up sticks and logs that wash into the sea from river estuaries, performing an important ecological function. But it also can be a damaging nuisance, eating the wood from boats and piers, causing considerable damage.
Unlike other wood-eating creatures, such as termites, that require thousands of microbes for digestion, the gribble’s gut needs no such help. Its digestive system is sterile, meaning it’s free of the complex microbial communities that inhabit other intestines, including ours. Scientists say that understanding how the gribble breaks down wood could help them develop better methods for turning timber into fuel. Currently, wood that is burned to generate energy must first be broken down in costly and energy-intensive processes. Gribbles may hold the key to a cheaper and energy-efficient means of unlocking the energy in wood.
“We desperately need to bring all possible mechanisms to bear on reducing carbon emissions,” said Simon McQueen-Mason from the University of York’s department of biology. “The timeframes in which we need to act to avoid the most drastic consequences of climate change are very small, and the clock is ticking.”