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Scientists have scoured cow rumens and termite guts for microbes that can efficiently break down plant cell walls for the production of next-generation biofuels, but some of the best microbial candidates actually may reside in the human lower intestine, researchers report.

Their study, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to use biochemical approaches to confirm the hypothesis that microbes in the human gut can digest fiber, breaking it down into simple sugars in order to ferment them into nutrients that nourish human cells. These findings have significance for human health but also for biofuels production, since the same sugars can be fed to yeast to generate ethanol and other liquid fuels.