Dan Schank | March 2009 issue
Can fungi be made into fuel? A team led by Montana State University professor of plant pathology Gary Strobel is giving it a try. Strobel believes Gliocladium roseum (shown left), a fungus found in the forests of northern Patagonia in South America, may offer an alternative to fossil fuels. G. roseum, recently unearthed during tests on ulmo trees in the region, releases gases that contain a complex mixture of hydrocarbons that become explosive when burned. The discovery has been coined “myco-diesel,” derived from the Greek word for fungus.
Though research is in its initial phases, Strobel thinks myco-diesel might offer an alternative to the ecological and financial costs of biofuel like ethanol. Traditionally, biodiesel must be converted into sugar before fuel is made. By contrast, Strobel notes, “myco-diesel can start with waste” since G. roseum grows on cellulose, the most abundant compound on Earth. Cellulose—found in grass cuttings, leaves and straw, for example—can be used to grow the fungus, without the need for fermentation. When G. roseum burns, the gases can be siphoned off and liquefied into fuel. Strobel thinks myco-diesel will burn efficiently in an engine—and cleanly, since it doesn’t contain some of the most harmful derivatives found in diesel.
“We have the fungus now in hand,” says Strobel, just back from collecting samples in Patagonia. He believes the active enzymes could be cloned and placed into other organisms to produce industrial-scale myco-diesel. He hopes his research on this fungus will make myco-diesel the biofuel of the future.