Patagonian Fungus Diesel: An Alternative Biofuel?

Scientists have recently discovered that a tree fungus Gliocladium roseum, produces compounds of long-chain hydrocarbons very similar in structure to commercial diesel.

The lead scientist of the research, Gary Strobel, from Montana State University said: “This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances… …we were totally surprised to learn that it was making a plethora of hydrocarbons.”

The work is due to be published in the journal Microbiology next month, where the compounds have been described as ‘mycodiesels.’ The research also documents the ability of the fungus to break down cellulose – the structure that makes up the plant cell wall with lignin – to create the mycodiesel. Previously, cellulose has been converted to biofuels in a two-step process requiring enzymes to create sugars from the cell wall followed by microbes to convert sugars to ethanol.

The find illustrates the very real and unthinkably diverse compounds in the depths of our remaining forests, and highlights the desperate need to conserve what we have left. The research also comes at a time when traditional taxonomy is in precipitous decline, making the case to educate more young taxonomists even stronger. There is great potential for the discovery of new medicines and fuels derived from biodiversity across many ecosystems, from forests to the marine environment.

Although excited by the news, Tariq Butt, a fungus expert based at Swansea University, urged caution:

“Concept-wise, the discovery and its potential applications are fantastic. However, more research is needed, as well as a pilot study to determine the costs and benefits. Even so, another potential supply of renewable fuel allows us to diversify our energy sources and is certainly an exciting discovery.”