A fungus that lives inside trees in the Patagonian rain forest naturally makes a mix of hydrocarbons that bears a striking resemblance to diesel, biologists announced today. And the fungus can grow on cellulose, a major component of tree trunks, blades of grass and stalks that is the most abundant carbon-based plant material on Earth.via Wired
While genetic engineers have been trying a variety of techniques and genes to get microbes to create fuel out of sugars and starches, almost all commercial biofuel production uses the century-old dry mill grain process. Ethanol plants ferment corn ears into alcohol, which is simple, but wastes the vast majority of the biomatter of the corn plant.
Using the cellulose from plants — the stalk instead of the ear, or simply wood from poplars — to make liquid fuel is a long-held dream because it would be more environmentally efficient and cheaper, but is far more difficult.
First, the cellulose must be broken down into its constituent parts — sugars bearing carbon — and then those pieces must be synthesized into more complex hydrocarbons. Both steps have proven difficult to do without applying large amounts of heat, pressure or chemicals.
What's exciting about the Gliocladium roseum fungus, however, is that it can both break down cellulose and synthesize the liquid fuel.
But beyond the biofuel implications, Strobel said that because the fungus can manufacture what we would normally think of as components of crude oil, it casts some doubt on the idea that crude oil is a fossil fuel.