Researchers Discover New Fuel in Patagonia Fungus

Posted Nov 4, 2008 by Bob Ewing
A team led by a Montana State University professor has found a fungus that produces a new type of diesel fuel which they say holds great promise.
Gary Strobel found diesel-producing fungus in this Patagonia rainforest.
Gary Strobel found diesel-producing fungus in this Patagonia rainforest.
Gary Strobel
Turning fungus into diesel fuel is a likely outcome of a recent discovery of a research team lead by a Montana State University professor.
The team has found a fungus that produces a new type of diesel fuel, which holds great promise.
Gary Strobel, MSU professor of plant sciences and plant pathology, and his collaborators refer to the fuel as myco-diesel and describe their initial observations in the November issue of Microbiology, which carries a photo of the fungus on its cover.
The discovery may offer an alternative to fossil fuels.. The find is even bigger than Strobel's 1993 discovery of fungus that contained the anticancer drug taxol.
Strobel found the diesel-producing fungus in a Patagonia rainforest. Strobel visited the rainforest in 2002 and collected a variety of specimens, including the branches from an ancient family of trees known as "ulmo."
When the team examined the branches, they found fungus growing inside. They continued to investigate and discovered that the fungus, called Gliocladium roseum, was producing gases. Further testing showed that the fungus -- under limited oxygen -- was producing a number of compounds normally associated with diesel fuel, which is obtained from crude oil.
"These are the first organisms that have been found that make many of the ingredients of diesel," Strobel said. "This is a major discovery."
Strobel is the lead author of the paper published in Microbiology. His MSU co-authors are Berk Knighton and Tom Livinghouse in the Department of Chemistry/Biochemistry, and Katreena Kluck and Yuhao Ren in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology. Other co-authors are Meghan Griffin and Daniel Spakowicz from Yale University and Joe Sears from the Center for Lab Services in Pasco, Wash.
When drivers will be able to fill their gas tanks with fungi fuel or if processors can make enough to fill the demand remain, as yet, unknowns. The road to commercialization is filled with potential glitches, It's also a major endeavor that will be left to others who specialize in those areas.
Myco-diesel could be an option for those who want alternatives even to ethanol. Some car manufacturers who shun ethanol might consider myco-diesel or fuels produced by other microbes.
"The question is, are there other microbes out there that can do that for us?" he asked.
Researchers in government agencies and private industry have already shown interest in the fungi. A team to conduct further research has been established between MSU's College of Engineering and researchers at Yale University.
One member of the team is Strobel's son, Scott, who is chairman of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor. The MSU-Yale team will investigate a variety of questions, including the genetic makeup of Gliocladium roseum.
"The main value of this discovery may not be the organism itself, but may be the genes responsible for the production of these gases," Gary Strobel said.
"There are certain enzymes that are responsible for the conversion of substrates such as cellulose to myco-diesel."
The team is already screening the fungus' genome. Besides determining the complete genetic makeup of the fungus, they will run a series of genetic and biochemical tests to identify the genes responsible for its diesel-making properties.
"The broader question is, what is responsible for the production of these compounds," Scott Strobel said. "If you can identify that, you can hopefully scale it up so you end up with better efficiency of production."
Scott Strobel agrees with his father that the discovery is exciting.
There's nothing in the scientific literature about a microbe that produces the diversity of medium-chain hydrocarbons found in the Gliocladium roseum, he said.
Longer hydrocarbon chains are common, but "that's not what you put in your gas tank or jet engine."
Another promising aspect is that the fungus can grow in cellulose.
"That's the most common organic molecule on earth," Scott Strobel said. "It's all around us, everywhere."
Scientists in a variety of disciplines should be able to work together to optimize production and find a way to turn what is essentially a vapor into a burnable, liquid fuel.