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fungus used for fuel

mtrocket

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Billings, Montana
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I wasn't sure where to post this. So, Rob, if you think this is not the place, please move it to the proper area.

I took this off www.billingsgazette.com - it was published in the newspaper in Billings, MT on Monday, November 10. Interesting, to say the least...

Montana State University scientist makes discovery that may allow using a fungus for fuel

By TOM LUTEY
Of The Billings Gazette Staff


In a world squeezed by the politics and price of petroleum, a Montana State University scientist has made a discovery that may have people turning to a fungus for fuel.

Gary Strobel introduced the world to "myco-diesel," a volatile gas generated by a Patagonian tree fungus called Gliocladium roseum, or G. roseum for short. It has many of the characteristics of diesel fuel and grabbed the attention of the national media last week as the American news media focused on the general election.

An article on the discovery appears in the latest edition of Microbiology, a professional journal based in the United Kingdom, and in Science magazine, which came out earlier last week. Strobel collaborated on the research with several MSU faculty members and with undergraduates at Yale University, where his son, Scott, is mapping G. roseum's DNA.

Strobel's discovery is big. The dreams of how the fungus-fuel concept might produce diesel on a broad scale are even bigger. Think about cellulose-rich yard clippings, leaves or even newspaper dropped in a vat where hungry fungus feed like yeast and produce vaporous diesel fuel as a byproduct - not some crude substance that then has to be refined, but a gaseous product with a chemical profile nearly identical to diesel, which could be collected, condensed and used in cars or jets.

"Nobody has ever seen anything like this before. It has some of the most important hydrocarbons found in diesel fuel," Stobel said. "When I saw the data every hair on my body stood up."

Other fungi have produced some of diesel's characteristics, but not as many as G. roseum, which generates 55 volatile hydrocarbons, the elements that make fuel combustible. The scientist has given the patent for G. roseum to Montana State University.

"Strobel's research on a microbial route from biomass to hydrocarbon-based fuels is resulting in very exciting

findings," said Bruce Hamilton of the National Science Foundation. NSF's bioengineering division helped fund the research. NSF has other biofuel projects in the works, some further along than myco-diesel, but it likes what Strobel has reported and that his work is already under review by peers.

Strobel is the first to say that miles of research stand between myco-diesel and the gas pump. For starters, it isn't clear how much myco-diesel the fungus can produce. The genes behind G. roseum's fuel-producing ways could be the real find, Strobel said, if scientists can transfer them to another organism to develop an even better fuel producer. That process, if successful, could take years to complete, but even in this early stage, the potential of myco-diesel is attracting attention.

Scott Strobel, chairman of the molecular biophysics and biochemistry department at Yale, teaches a rain forest expedition and laboratory course. Two of Scott Strobel's graduate students co-authored Gary's myco-diesel paper.

Father and son were meeting last week with research firms interested in their work. "There's a substantial market for energy and it's completely insatiable, so it doesn't matter if you've got 20 other solutions out there," said Scott Strobel. "If you've got one solution that's viable and pricing is comparative, there is a market."

But there's a difference between myco-diesel and other developing biofuels. Myco-diesel behaves like diesel. Ethanol, the leader of the biofuel pack, does not perform like diesel. Ethanol doesn't burn as well as petroleum-based fuels, which means it delivers less power in combustion engines. And because of its chemical structure, ethanol attracts water, which is why ethanol-blended fuel left in a lawnmower goes bad over winter. The water factor also makes the fuel rough on engines.

The other knock on ethanol, especially corn-based ethanol produced in the United States, is that it's made from the edible part of the plant and therefore competes with livestock and people who want the corn for food. Ethanol is basically alcohol produced by fermenting simple sugars in plants, whereas myco-diesel-producing fungi feed on cellulose, the most abundant organic compound on earth.

"There is a lot of effort put into making ethanol biofuels," Scott Strobel said. "Instead of drinking it, you put it in your gas tank. Henry Ford back in 1909 concluded that ethanol is a crappy fuel because it doesn't have much energy and is hydroscopic, and he was right."

Ford also said that ethanol was the fuel of the future, but after using it in early versions of the Model T he switched to gasoline.

There could be other myco-diesel-producing fungi waiting for discovery. If there's one thing the Strobels have learned, it's that science has barely scratched the surface of what beneficial organisms might be found in the world's ancient forests.

G. roseum was discovered growing beneath the bark of an ulmo tree in northern Patagonia. Gary Strobel won't say exactly where, for the same reason a prospector is tight-lipped about a rich gold vein discovery. The scientist has spent years traveling to the forests of South America, Africa, Madagascar, Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia. His campus office, just large enough for a desk and filing cabinet, is decorated in aboriginal weaponry; didgeridoos, which Strobel occasionally plays; and portraits of natives he's known.

Jungle travel is rough on a body. There are malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever and all kinds of illness caused by water-borne parasites. Strobel, 70, has escaped illness, but he bears the scars of psoriasis brought on by a major chigger infestation several years ago.

But he repeatedly returns to the jungle because that's where life on earth is most heavily concentrated. An area of only a few square yards can produce enough new discoveries to keep Strobel busy in the lab for months. Not many scientists do this kind of work - most find a field and specialize. Strobel is always making new discoveries and moving on. The red Christmas-style cap with a white pom that he wears on all his expeditions has been donated to the Smithsonian Museum, presumably because it's his trademark and also a makeshift repository for the rainforest samples he collects. Stuffed with clothes, the hat also makes a handy jungle pillow.

The connection to the places Strobel travels is that they were all part of the same supercontinent, Gondwanaland, some 300 million years ago. These forests escaped the disasters that wiped out life in other pockets of the world. Because of their continuous survival, the forests of Gondwanaland have an unmatched number of life forms.

What Strobel has done, mostly on his own dime, is travel to forests and collect samples, usually by collecting a twig or a small piece of plant matter in a plastic bag. Back at his Montana State University laboratory, Strobel looks for fungi in the samples often growing beneath a plant's surface.

Earlier this decade, one of the fungi Strobel sampled, Muscodor albus, turned out to produce a volatile antibiotic gas mixture. A Petri dish of the fungus wiped out all others growing in its vicinity. Strobel recognized the gas as both a defense mechanism for the fungus and for the plant it inhabited. Basically the Muscodor might have been protecting the plant it inhabited by killing other pathogenic microbes. Commercially, M. albus will soon be used to protect perishable fruit from being attacked by bacteria and fungi during shipment. It poses no health risk to humans and is replacing more harmful chemicals once used to prevent spoilage. Science magazine in 2002 selected Strobel's work on the fungus as the most important in microbiology that year.

It was the work with M. albus that got the scientist thinking about other gas-producing fungi and eventually lead him to G. roseum, which in the lab appeared to not only grow in the presence of M. albus, but also generate its own volatile gas.

Before M. albus, Strobel was making scientific news for discovering taxol in Pacific yew trees. Taxol is a powerful drug used to fight ovarian and breast cancer. Before Strobel's discovery it had been hard to produce the drug, which now can be generated by the fungus, but this is also in the development stage.

In the late 1980s, Strobel's work landed him on the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Strobel had discovered bacteria that protected trees from Dutch elm disease, a notable solution. But it was the way he conducted his research that made the news. He'd injected genetically altered bacteria into trees on the Montana State University campus, though the federal Environmental Protection Agency forbade him from doing so.

Genetic engineering was a booming, but relatively new field at the time. Most scientists believed federal restrictions on the research were at best behind the times, and at worst backward and illogical. But no one before Strobel was going to challenge the rules for fear of costing their schools federal research assistance.

The U.S. Senate ultimately intervened, directing the EPA to back off Strobel and revise its policies that presented roadblocks to research. That intervention didn't come until after Strobel was forced to cut down the 14 elm trees he injected.

So many of his discoveries since have come from trees and Strobel's own realization that between the layers of each exists an unseen world brimming with potential. You can count the number of places the scientist has gone by admiring the fountain pens on his desk, each hand-carved from a piece of wood Strobel thoughtfully packed away from each destination as a keepsake. There are 40 on display, but then the doctor opens a deep file cabinet drawer stuffed with keepsake pens stored in hermetically sealed bags. There are too many to count.


Published on Monday, November 10, 2008.
 
M

mswaim

Guest
Hey, maybe GM can scrape the fungus off the cars sitting in their lots and turn it into fuel!!!!
 

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