Researchers at the University of California have cobbled genes from a common fungus together with yeast, to create a powerful new critter that can chew its way through wood and other tough plants. The development is significant because it could lead to a cost effective means of producing biofuel without relying on food crops such as corn and soy.
A New Path for Biofuels
One driving force behind U. Cal Berkeley’s research is the need to find alternatives to food crops for renewable biofuels. In conventional biofuel production, yeast breaks down plant sugars (in the form of glucose or sucrose) into alcohols. The challenge is to get the yeast to digest woody plants and waste material that can’t be used as human food. The U. Cal team is on to a solution by adding genes from the much-studied fungus Neurospora crassa, a form of bread mold. This fungus can digest cellulose (the hard stuff in plants) but can’t produce alcohol, so when you put it together with yeast you could make biofuel magic out of everything from corn stalks and weeds to waste paper and orange peels (and yes, biofuel could even grow on trees).
More and Cheaper Biofuels
The other challenge is finding a cost-effective way to process woody plant matter into biofuel. Currently, so called cellulosic biofuels are made by deploying enzymes to convert cellulose into a form of plant sugar, which then must go through additional processing to yield the glucose that yeast can digest. By using the N. crassa/yeast combo, the U. Cal researchers believe that they can condense the process into a “one-pot” operation. As for the biofuel market, aside from ground vehicles the U.S. Navy and U. S. Air Force have already begun experimenting with jet biofuel, so the sky’s the limit.
Image: Fungus by psyberartist on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.