Rainforest fungus promises biofuel breakthrough

Scientists claim newly discovered organism can produce fuel without treatment needed for regular biofuels

Scientists believe they have discovered a fungus that shares so many of the characteristics of conventional biofuels, that it has the potential to be pumped directly into fuel tanks without prior treatment or processing.

The organism, Gliocladium roseum, is an endophidic fungus that lives inside the Ulmo tree, found in the Patagonian rainforest. Professor Gary Strobel from Montana State University said his team had found that the fungus was capable of acting naturally on cellulosic plant matter to produce a biodiesel.

"It's unusual in that it makes a whole mixture of hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon derivatives that are all flammable and explosive and have the potential to serve as a green source of energy for humankind," he explained.

Usually during biofuel production, plant cellulose is first treated with enzymes that turn it into sugar. Microbes then ferment the sugar into ethanol, which can be used to power vehicles.

In contrast, the fungus feeds on cellulose directly and produces the complex hydrocarbons also found in fossil fuels without the need for any external treatment, according to Strobel, who has now dubbed the resultant fuel Mycodiesel.

"Although the fungus makes less Mycodiesel when it feeds on cellulose compared to sugars, new developments in fermentation technology and genetic manipulation could help improve the yield," said Strobel. "In fact, the genes of the fungus are just as useful as the fungus itself in the development of new biofuels."

Strobel said his team will now work on refining the production process to improve yield.

Montana State University holds the patent on Gliocladium roseum and has invited parties interested in pursuing a license on the patent to contact its technology transfer office.

The findings appear in the November issue of the journal Microbiolo gy.

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