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UMass Scientists Still Challenged By Digestive Mysteries Of The Shipworm

Researchers at UMass Amherst say they've solved at least one mystery about a destructive saltwater mollusk known as the shipworm.The mollusk has been known about for millennia, historically devouring wood boats and piers – more recently to the tune of billions of dollars a year.

But they also do some good, eating a percentage of the world's fallen trees, creating habitats and cycling nutrients into the ocean. Still, it's unclear to scientists how they digest.

New research from the scientists at UMass Amherst, published in a recent issue of Frontiers in Microbiologyconfirms that the guts of the shipworm are sterile, unlike cows and termites and most other animals that eat wood. 

The shipworms do have enzymes in their gills, said microbiologist Barry Goodell. Those enzymes go after the wood's cellulose material – which, he said, is structurally sort of like a candy bar.

“That candy bar is wrapped up with this rather thick wrapper which is lignin,’ Goodell said.

Lignin, a polymer, is hard like plastic. But the enzymes in the mollusk's gills – which go on to travel to its gut – only go after the cellulose.

“How the digestion of the lignin occurs is still that mystery,” Goodell said.

Knowing more about how shipworms so efficiently consume wood can help mitigate their destruction, and more importantly, Goodell said,it could lead to advancements in biofuel.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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