The setting for this discovery sounds like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. A fungus that grows in Ulmo trees in the Patagonian Rainforest is the source of a significant discovery.
“This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances,” said Professor Gary Strobel from Montana State University. “The fungus can even make these diesel compounds from cellulose, which would make it a better source of biofuel than anything we use at the moment.”
Like many scientific breakthroughs, scientists stumbled upon this discovery by accident.
“Gliocladium roseum lives inside the Ulmo tree in the Patagonian rainforest. We were trying to discover totally novel fungi in this tree by exposing its tissues to the volatile antibiotics of the fungus Muscodor albus. Quite unexpectedly, G. roseum grew in the presence of these gases when almost all other fungi were killed. It was also making volatile antibiotics. Then when we examined the gas composition of G. roseum, we were totally surprised to learn that it was making a plethora of hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon derivatives. The results were totally unexpected and very exciting and almost every hair on my arms stood on end!”
Lab tests have shown this fungus produces a substance even more similar to diesel fuel than it did in the wild. Genetic manipulation can help to increase the yield. Amazingly, cellulose can be directly converted into diesel, skipping a step typically needed in biofuel production. In other words, it can break down cellulose and produce a liquid fuel in the same process.
The next question is how cost effective this process is for making transportation fuels and further development may be needed to increase the yield of the fuel by the fungus. This process however could open up new sources of feedstock for producing fuel, such as agricultural waste. Like many initial discoveries, it has created more questions than answers.
“The discovery also questions our knowledge of the way fossil fuels are made. The accepted theory is that crude oil, which is used to make diesel, is formed from the remains of dead plants and animals that have been exposed to heat and pressure for millions of years,” said Professor Strobel. “If fungi like this are producing myco-diesel all over the rainforest, they may have contributed to the formation of fossil fuels.”
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