It sounds like a fantasy character created by Roald Dahl, or played by Jim Carrey – the gribble. But in fact it's a small marine creature resembling a woodlouse, and it may provide the key to a major breakthrough for biofuels in Britain.
For the gribble bores into the planks of boats and the pillars of piers and eats them, and its wood-consuming technique may be adapted by scientists to turn wood into sustainable motor fuel on a vast scale.
The gribble, or to be precise, the four-spot gribble, Limnoria quadripunctata, is one of the key elements in Britain's biggest-ever publicly-funded bioenergy research programme, announced yesterday. A total of £27m is to be spent over five years in creating so-called "second generation" biofuels, which are much more efficient and environmentally friendly than present biofuels, which are largely manufactured from food crops such as maize, wheat or sugar cane.
The second-generation compounds will be derived from non-food plant material, principally plant waste such as straw and wood, with willow being especially favoured. And if they can isolate the enzymes the gribble uses to extract the nutritious sugars from wood (from which biofuels such as ethanol can be made) scientists may be able to make the process much more efficient.
Simon McQueen-Mason, professor of materials biology at the University of York, who came across the gribble when he was a professional fisherman on the Isle of Wight for six years before beginning his academic career. "I used to clean the bottom of other people's boats, and gribble was a major problem," he said. Now his laboratory will investigate gribbles collected from rotting wood by staff from the University of Portsmouth, identifying their enzymes and trying to reproduce them synthetically.
Success is likely to mean an enormous expansion of willow as a biofuel crop in Britain, on some of the three million acres of lesser quality or marginal farmland countrywide, which would go a long way to meeting Britain's targets of drawing 5 per cent of motor fuel from biological sources by 2010 and 10 per cent by 2020.