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Published on July 5th, 2012 | by Silvio Marcacci


Ancient Fungus Ended Coal Formation, Could Boost Biofuel Production

July 5th, 2012 by  


In an ironic twist, genomics researchers have stumbled upon an incredible discovery – the same ancestral fungus that ended coal formation millennia ago may now be able to boost biofuel and bioenergy production.

The proposal, recently presented by a team of 71 researchers from 12 countries including the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI), may have identified what ended the development of coal deposits from fossilized plant remains 360-300 million years ago during the Carboniferous period.

Coal as an energy source is incredibly unique – combining one of the most potent available combinations of stored energy with the largest concentration of harmful emissions. But this uniqueness was entirely due to the absence of fungi capable of breaking down the lignin polymer that kept plant cell walls rigid enough to prevent decay.

Over millions of years, this “unbreakable” plant material converted into peat and then coal, and eventually launched both the Industrial Revolution and modern global warming. But, suddenly (geologically speaking), the development of new coal deposits came to a hard stop around 290 million years ago.

The DOE JGI researchers theorize this change was likely the result of the development and spread of an ancestor of Agaricomycetes, or white rot fungus, which could break down the great bulk of plant biomass into basic chemical components and release the stored carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

So, basically, we have white rot fungus to thank for limiting the Earth’s coal deposits and limiting the amount of mercury, and the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, that can be emitted into the atmosphere in a very short time frame. Good job, Agaricomycetes!

While the discovery is meaningful for people concerned about climate change, it may hold the key to increasing biofuel production from feedstocks that are currently infeasible for conversion via fermentation. “The 12 new genome sequences could serve as potential resources for industrial microbiologists aiming to develop new tools for producing biofuels,” said project leader David Hibbett of Clark University.

But increasing biofuel production isn’t the limit for this discovery. Because enzymes from white rot fungi can break down complex organic molecules, researchers think they could ultimately be used in bioremediation operations to remove hazardous contaminants from the environment.

If this theory holds true, it could mean an exponential increase in the ability to reduce emissions from transportation fuels and clean hazardous waste. But white rot could be the tip of the iceberg.

“There’s an estimated 1.5 million species of fungi, we have names for about 100,000 species, and we’re looking at 1,000 fungi in this project,” said researcher Joseph Spatafora. “”We’re trying to learn even more to gain a better idea of fungal metabolism and the potential to harness fungi for a number of applications, including bioenergy.”

Source: Green Car Congress
Fallen tree image via Shutterstock

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About the Author

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate policy public relations company based in Oakland, CA.

  • anderlan

    So, what this means is that not only is coal not renewable on human time scales, coal is not renewable, AT ALL, because of an innovation in the biosphere. 

    This is interesting, because most people think of plants as being able to sequester carbon indefinitely.  A quarter of a billion years ago, this was how it happened. Now, however, that carbon rarely stays sequestered in the plant’s form when it dies.  To successfully bury carbon, the circumstances for burial have to be perfect nowadays, because modern soils have more powerful microbes.

    Burning all our coal is not natural and is against the creator’s plan, as plain as day.

  • Pingback: Win-win: Ancient fungus that ended coal formation could boost biofuel production | Grist()

  • Karel

     “So, basically, we have white rot fungus to thank for limiting the
    Earth’s coal deposits and limiting the amount of carbon dioxide,
    mercury, and other greenhouse gases that can be emitted into the

    Not really. without the fungus more carbon had been stored in the form coal. CO2 levels in the atmosphere would have been lower at the start of the industrial revolution and temperatures would also been lower.

    So without the fungus. climate change would start with a lower average temperature, but if all coal would be burned, final CO2 concentration and temperatures would be the same as the case with the fungus.  Without the fungus the change would be bigger, but the final result the same.

    By the way, since when is mercury a greenhouse gas?

    PR doesn’t work if you do not know what you are talking about.

    • Ross

      Do you have evidence it would have played out like that, i.e. all the extra carbon stored as coal remains in the form of coal for 300 million odd years until the industrial revolution starts. What about different sea-levels and conditions less favorable to the formation of coal.

      • Karel

         Ross, you are missing the point. When coal is formed, there is no carbon created as Silvio seems to think, instead the carbon in the coal is taken from CO2 in the atmosphere.
        So if you imagine a world where, for whatever reason, more coal has been formed than in the real world, you will have less CO2 in the atmosphere, hence it will be cooler there.

        However, if in both worlds you burn all the coal you will have the same amount of CO2 in the atmosphere as before coal formation. So the fungus has not limited the possible amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

        • ThomasGerke

          But the important part of the story is that synthesizing the enzyme of the fungus will enable us to split lingin polymeres (wood, straw,…) in biorefinaries for the production of fuel & basic chemicals. Something that would seriously increase the potential of biomass. 

          The coal developement thing is just a nice little anecdote to showcase how efficent the fungus has been at spliting complex organic hydrocarbons.

          Making use of renewable hydrocarbons instead of petro-chemical chemicals is just as important as getting rid of fossil fuels for energy production. 

          Truly fascinating stuff happening in that area. 😉

          • Karel

             That maybe true, but if somebody thinks that mercury is a greenhouse gas, and that carbon is created when coal is formed, they kind of loose their credibility.

          • Bob_Wallace

            The text now reads ”
             limiting the amount of mercury and the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases “.  

            I suspect the mistake was corrected.

            I also suspect the problem occurred due to faulty proofreading, not faulty knowledge.

            Perhaps a better strategy to use in the future is to suggest to the author that there might be a mistake rather than go all ‘high dungeon’.

          • yes, just clarified the sentence.

    • Silvio

      Coal is the dirtiest form of energy that exists, and I sincerely doubt that the natural process of rotting plants releases the same concentration of GHG as burning fossils. If you can prove me wrong, I’ll ask Zach to delete the line. 

      With regard to mercury as a greenhouse gas, using a serial comma in that sentence makes the two words different thoughts. By the way, you have multiple punctuation errors in your comment, but I’m sure that doesn’t affect the meaning of it, right?

      • Karel

        Maybe my tone was not so nice. But either you can go all defensive, or you can   use me as a way to improve your writing and understanding of the subject. For free!

        “Coal is the dirtiest form of energy that exists, and I sincerely doubt
        that the natural process of rotting plants releases the same
        concentration of GHG as burning fossils.”

        You really are missing the basics here:

        If plants grow they absorb CO2 and incorporate the carbon atoms. If these plants rot the same amount of CO2 is released into the atmosphere as was absorbed in the first place.

        If the plants are turned into coal, the coal contains the same amount of carbon atoms as the plants did. So if you burn the coal the same amount of CO2 is released as when the plants would have rotted directly.

        Regarding the mercury as a GHG, that was a word order thing, not a punctuation thing. I am not a native speaker of the fine English language and I am also not making my living by writing, so please forgive me that I hold you to higher standards than myself.

        One more thing about the mercury-CHG sentence:
        CO2 is pretty much the only CHG released by burning coals. So a better sentence would be: CO2 mercury, SOx and other pollutants.

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