Deep in the Jungle, A Fungus Pumps Out Diesel From Wood

By Nina Bai | November 4, 2008 6:32 pm

fungusA newly discovered tree fungus could be on its way to the gas station. The fungus, Gliocladium roseum, is able to turn plant matter into gaseous hydrocarbons that are almost chemically identical to diesel fuel. “This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances,” said researcher Gary Strobel from Montana State University. “The fungus can even make these diesel compounds from cellulose, which would make it a better source of biofuel than anything we use at the moment” [LiveScience].

The fungus grows inside trees in the rainforests of Patagonia, in the southern part of Argentina and Chile. After discovering the new fungus wedged between cells in a stem from an Ulmo tree (Eucryphia cordifolia), Strobel and colleagues cultured the organism, collected the gaseous compounds it produced, and ran the compounds through a mass spectrometer to identify them. When he saw the printout, Strobel says, “every hair on my body stood up.” The list included octane, 1-octene, heptane, 2-methyl, and hexadecane–all common components of diesel fuels [ScienceNOW]. The gaseous compound, dubbed “myco-diesel,” is thought to be used by G. roseum to poison other fungi.

Currently, the production of biofuel requires copious amounts of chemicals, heat, and pressure, which has prevented real commercial success for the young biofuel industry thus far. Ethanol plants can ferment ears of corn into useful alcohol, but most of the corn, like other plant matter made of hard-to-digest cellulose, goes to waste. Making biofuel from cellulose is a difficult two-step process that requires first breaking down the cellulose into simple sugars and then synthesizing the sugars into complex hydrocarbons. But G. roseum can do both, leading scientists to eye “myco-diesel” as a potential source of renewable energy. Stroble suggests, 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… 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 [AFP].

Montana State University currently has a patent on the fungus. Strobel is teaming up with his son, Scott Strobel, a biochemist at Yale University, to sequence the genome of the fungus. The Strobels seem determined to keep the exact location of the fungus a family secret. Asked where the fungus had been found, [the elder Strobel] 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?” [AFP]

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Anything Into Ethanol
DISCOVER: Biofuel Farming Looks to Be an Environmental Disaster
80beats: Genetically Engineered Bugs Could Produce Cheap Biofuel
80beats: Backlash Over Biofuel Builds in Europe
80beats: Biofuels or Cheap Food: Do We Have to Choose?

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • Charles@Donate Real Estate

    It would be nice if we could use corn more efficently and productively. I’d like to see this this bug used on yard wastes. Especially as the leaves fall this fall. Big job. Wouldn’t the leaves make a great source of biofuel.

  • http://valentinesagefieldvineyard valensage

    fantastic discovery; Will probably end up on the desk of some oil producer

  • LadyFarmer

    How can Montana State University “have a patent on the fungus”? They did not create it. I can see them having a patent on a method to harvest the produce of this fungus. Or a patent on the replication of the diesel creating gene. But on the natural organism itself? BAD IDEA.

  • Gabriel

    Now I understand why so many foreign people have been guying huge extensions of our Patagonia in the last decade! Regards from Argentina, home of the best meat in Earth, now source of the diesel of the future. Gabriel

  • sunshine

    i think that it is a good idea not to tell anyone where those trees are located because before you know it there will be people out there cutting down trees just for money.keep it a secret thats the best way.reproduce!!!!!

  • spha-odon

    “composers decomposers” our friendly symbyotic relitives at work; I can not suppose anyone else who would need it beside OPEC AND THE CARTEL(:a combination of independent business enterprises designed to limit competition).

  • naveen

    I want more information how to culture that fungus
    and extract the gaseous produced by that fungus

  • Alexandru Stanciu

    Hey, I understand that these guys are working for the University of Montana, but can independent researchers confirm that what they claim they found is true? If it is true, that means that you can have your back yard like biogas production from your leafs and dead wood. And an other thing is the patent on what. On a living organism? I do not think this will hold. My conclusion is that they are after the funds and their job to keep. Hoax.

  • Christy

    To those who are wondering about patents on fungi, this is actually very common. Many fungi strains have already been patented, especially if they show some type of potential for being useful in an industry. Unfortunately, the side-effect of this is that researchers often have a difficult time obtaining or working with strains that have been patented, or they have no incentive to develop them. So, there are many strains that have great potential but are just sitting there because of the patent restrictions on them. Hopefully that doesn’t wind up to be the case with this discovery.

  • louboutin pigalle

    Though I don’t agree with you in details, your post is insightful

  • Margarito Howes

    Thanks for the post, I’ll keep checking back for more stuff, bookmarked!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar