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A tree-living fungus that produces a substance similar to diesel fuel has been discovered in South America. Skip related content
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'Diesel' producing fungus found
Experts believe Gliocladium roseum could potentially be a completely new source of green energy.
The fungus, which lives inside the Ulmo tree in the Patagonian rainforest, naturally produces hydrocarbon fuel similar to the diesel used to power cars and lorries.
Scientists were amazed to find that it was able to convert plant cellulose directly into the biofuel, dubbed "myco-diesel".
Crops normally have to be converted to sugar and fermented before they can be turned into useful fuel.
Professor Gary Strobel, from Montana State University in the US, said: "G. roseum can make myco-diesel directly from cellulose, the main compound found in plants and paper. This means if the fungus was used to make fuel, a step in the production process could be skipped."
Prof Strobel led an investigation into novel fungi in the rainforests of northern Patagonia, which cross the borders of Argentina and Chile.
He found that when the diesel fuel fungus was exposed to potentially toxic antibiotics, it reacted defensively by generating volatile gases.
"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," he said.
"The results were totally unexpected and very exciting and almost every hair on my arms stood on end."
Cellulose provides the fibrous supporting structure of plants. During biofuel production, cellulose from plant waste is first treated with enzymes that turn it into sugar. Microbes then ferment the sugar into inflammable ethanol.
Nearly 430 million tonnes of plant waste is produced from farmland each year around the world.
Prof Strobel said: "We were very excited to discover that G. roseum can digest cellulose. Although the fungus makes less myco-diesel when it feeds on cellulose compared to sugars, new developments in fermentation technology and genetic manipulation could help improve the yield.
"In fact, the genes of the fungus are just as useful as the fungus itself in the development of new biofuels."
In fact, it's so good at turning plant matter into fuel that researchers say their discovery calls into question the whole theory of how crude oil was made by nature in the first place.
While many crops and microbes can be combined to make biofuels — including the fungi that became infamous as jungle rot during WWII — the newfound fungus could greatly simplify the process, its discoverers claim. Researchers have suggested that billions of acres of fallow farmland could be used to grow the raw material of biofuels. But turning corn stalks or switchgrass into fuel is a painstaking process and the end product is expensive and not entirely friendly to the environment.
Originally posted by johnsky
Well, I'm all for experimentation, and supporting those who experiment as well... but I fail to see how a fungus can be used in a mass production environment, capable of producing enough fuel for the worlds fleets of vehicles.
No... the best bet up to now for alternative energy remains electric (hardly alternative I know). It's good enough for our factories, it's good enough for our cars.
Instead of using farmland to grow biofuels, G. roseum could be grown in factories, like baker's yeast, and its gases siphoned off to be liquefied into fuel, he suggested. Another alternative, he said, would be to strip out the enzyme-making genes from the fungus and use this to break down the cellulose to make the biodiesel.
Strobel said Montana State University had filed patents for the fungus, proceeds of which would be shared with local people in Patagonia.
Asked where the fungus had been found, he pointed to the experiences of the 1848 gold rush and said the location had to be protected: "The answer to that is, what if we pushed ourselves back about a hundred and fifty years and you heard a story about a guy finding gold out in California?"
The find is even bigger, said Strobel, than his 1993 discovery of fungus that contained the anticancer drug taxol.