Heat-loving fungi could provide a key enzyme for making low cost biofuel, and a team of “mushroom detectives” from the Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute think they’ve just nailed their man – er, fungus. In an article published just yesterday in Nature Biotechnology, the team identified two types of fungi that can boost the biofuel refining process along at temperatures up to 75 degrees C. That’s far above the room-temperature range that conventional bio-refining organisms can tolerate.
Enzymes and Low-cost Biofuels
Next-generation biofuel refining is based on tweaking enzymes to break down plant walls and convert biomass to fermentable sugars. The research has two main goals. One is to find ways to cut down the energy input needed for biofuel processing. The other is to develop refining methods that can efficiently process woody, non-food material such as grasses, poplar trees, or corn cobs, orange peels and many other types of waste from agricultural or food processing operations. Enzymes that can survive higher temperatures can help accelerate the biofuel refining process, and with great efficiency comes a greater potential to keep costs down.
Biofuel Meets the Magic Mushroom
The JGI team identified two fungi, Thielavia terrrestris and Myceliophthora thermophila, whose enzymes can thrive at 45 degrees C. and remain active at temperatures up to 75 degrees, far above the body-temperature limit of 35 degrees for the typical enzyme. Specifically, the researchers concluded that the level of efficiency would match the needs of a large-scale biorefining operation. The team also found evidence that the two fungi could be hosts for further genetic manipulation to make their enzymes even more efficient.
A National Biofuel Policy
Last summer, President Obama toured the Midwest to promote a national biofuel policy that also creates green jobs, targeted to rural communities that have been steadily withering away. In the latest development, the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program just announced a new round of grants that includes funding for advanced biofuel research, some of which would be housed in unused timber mills. With a little more help from Congress (!) research like the Joint Genome Institute will help the U.S. transition from a high risk (as in Gulf oil spill) fuel supply to a more safe and sustainable energy source.
Image: Fungus for biofuel courtesy of Adrian Tsang, Concordia University via jgi.goe.gov.