The Global View

Fungus: the secret of better biofuels?

mushroom21.jpgMushrooms are fast becoming Greenbang’s environmental superhero. Move over, Al Gore, you’re no match for the humble fungus, despite its lack of documentary making prowess.
Last week, Greenbang learnt the little blighters could be used to sop up pollution. Now she learns that they are also set to be the new superstars of the biofuel world.

Researchers led by the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI) and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) have discovered a fungus, best known for chewing its way through military uniforms circa World War II, ” has revealed a surprisingly minimal repertoire of genes that it employs to break down plant cell walls, highlighting opportunities for further improvements in enzymes customised for biofuels production”.

The fungus bears the delightful title of Trichoderma reesei, and here’s why it’s so goshdarn exciting:

“The information generated from the genome of T. reesei provides us with a roadmap for accelerating research to optimize fungal strains for reducing the current prohibitively high cost of converting lignocellulose to fermentable sugars,” said Eddy Rubin, DOE JGI Director and one of the paper’s senior authors. “Improved industrial enzyme ‘cocktails’ from T. reseei and other fungi will enable more economical conversion of biomass from such feedstocks as the perennial grasses Miscanthus and switchgrass, wood from fast-growing trees like poplar, agricultural crop residues, and municipal waste, into next-generation biofuels. Through these incremental advances, we hope to eventually supplant the gasoline-dependent transportation sector of our economy with a more carbon-neutral strategy.”

You might point out, rightly, that biofuels are about as popular at the moment as a loud fart in a stuck lift, but that’s not to say this sort of stuff mightn’t come in handy when the biofuels problems have been fixed up.