Question Sheet: Microbes at the Gas Pump


Before reading:

  1. Why is it important for scientists and engineers to develop replacements for

    fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas?

  2. What is ethanol?

During reading:

  1. What is currently the main source of ethanol for fueling cars?
  2. Explain in your own words how fermentation works.
  3. Why is cellulose a problem in developing good sources of ethanol?
  4. How do termites digest cellulose and other components of wood?
  5. What role do bacteria play in a cow’s stomachs?
  6. How has President Bush tried to encourage the production of biofuels,

    especially ethanol?

After reading:

  1. List the advantages and disadvantages of developing an alternative fuel

    versus developing a car that is more energy efficient or a hybrid car that runs

    on both electricity and gas.

  2. Why is reducing the cost of producing ethanol important?
  3. In what industries is fermentation an important process? Name some products

    that you can buy that were produced by fermentation. See (Wikipedia) or

  4. Why are termites more efficient than cows at digesting cellulose? What gas

    do cows produce when they digest cellulose? See (American Society for Microbiology).

  5. What is an enzyme? What sorts of roles do enzymes play in the human body?

    See (Wikipedia).


Of all the oil used in the United States, what percentage of it comes from oil wells in the United States? From which country does the United States import the most oil? From what other countries does the United States get a lot of the oil that it needs? See


and (U.S. Department of Energy).


  1. Suppose that you are writing an article about biofuels for a car magazine.

    In what ways would such an article differ from one for another type of magazine?

    What points would you emphasize? What additional information would you provide?

  2. Come up with another title for this article. Why would it be a better title?


In the United States, on average, a person consumes 22 barrels of oil each year (1 barrel = 42 gallons). Calculate how many barrels of oil your family consumes each year based on the number of people in your family. How many barrels are used by the people of your town? Your state? Compare these figures to the 11 million gallons of oil that were spilled in Alaska when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground. How long would it take your family (and your town) to use 11 million gallons of oil?