November 06, 2008

Fuel-Making Fungus: Put Some Gliocladium in Your Tank

A fungus discovered in southern South America is capable of turning cellulose into diesel fuel, much like that used to power vehicles the world over. The endophyte (a fungus that lives inside of plant tissues), dubbed Gliocladium roseum, breaks down the cellulose and releases a vapor rich in octane, alcohols and esters in a mixture that burns with greater efficiency than diesel fuels currently on the market, resulting in what could become a lower-cost, cleaner-burning, renewable fuel source. While the fungus has so far been found only in a single tree species, New Scientist reports that

...the fungus can grow on cellulose, which contains huge amounts of hydrocarbon but is notoriously difficult to break down.

"It's the most abundant organic compound produced on earth, but most of it goes to waste," says [discoverer Gary] Strobel. By fermenting the fungus on cellulose, it should be possible to generate huge quantities of the diesel vapour "ready-for-use".
In other words, it might be possible to culture G. roseum in industrial-sized vats of medium made from waste paper products and covert that waste into relatively cheap energy while reducing carbon emissions. More research needs to be done to determine how economically this can be done.

All in all, this is yet another story for the "fungi... is there anything they can't do?" file. It's also another powerful argument about the importance of preserving natural resources and native ecology around the world. New species with applications that can improve our lives in numerous ways are frequently discovered. For every species lost that we know about, how many do we lose before we've ever found out about them in the first place? Gliocladium roseum could just as easily been among that latter category.

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