A wild fungus has been found to produce a variety of hydrocarbon components of diesel fuel. The harmless, microscopic fungus, known as Gliocladium roseum (NRRL 50073), lives quietly within ulmo trees in the Patagonian rainforest.
Gary Strobel of Montana State University has found that the fungus produces many energy-rich hydrocarbons, and that the particular diesel components produced can be varied by changing the growing medium and environment of the fungus. The fungus even performs under low-oxygen conditions like those found deep underground.
Strobel’s discovery suggests that fungi living in ancient plants may have contributed to the natural formation of crude oil, a slow process that occurs when organic matter is subjected to high pressure and heat under layers of rock.
“Time will tell if this microbe can be developed for useful purposes for mankind,” said Strobel. He envisions these fungi, or their genetic material, being used in the future to purposefully manufacture hydrocarbons for fuel.
Before that can happen, researchers must figure out how to increase hydrocarbon yields from the fungus and find ways to supply the remaining hydrocarbon components needed for complete diesel fuel.
Strobel is now checking other strains of Gliocladium roseum for hydrocarbon production. The strain originally isolated from the tree produced annulene, a component of rocket fuel. “Upon storage it diverted hydrocarbon production to simple things like octane and heptane,” which are two components of diesel fuel, Strobel said. “As is the usual case in biology, if one micro-organism can do nifty biochemical tricks, so can others.”
“Dr Strobel’s research on a microbial route from biomass to hydrocarbon-based fuels is resulting in very exciting findings,” said Bruce Hamilton, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems, which funded the research. “This is a promising area of biofuels research, and it is wonderful to see his work move so rapidly into peer-reviewed, published literature.”
Strobel’s research appears in the November 2008 issue of Microbiology.