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"Fungal Fuel" -- The Discovery Files

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Study, which was conducted by a team of 71 researchers from 12 countries, reveals potentially large influences of fungi, one of the most biologically diverse classes of organisms, on our energy supplies.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

From fungi to fuel.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

(Sound effect: pizza restaurant) That mushroom on your pizza is just one of the 1.5 million species of fungi on our planet. Now, an international team of researchers is focusing on the evolution and diversity of fungi.

One segment of their research shows promise for creating biofuels with the help of fungal enzymes. (Sound effect: prehistoric jungle sounds) To understand, let's go back to the carboniferous period, a time when all the coal we use today was being formed. Coal is made up of the fossilized remains of plants--mostly lignin--that exists in cell walls as part of a tough matrix with a carbohydrate, cellulose. The only type of microorganism that can destroy lignin is white rot fungi. When these guys get to work, the matrix collapses and cellulose is freed. Once these fungi evolved, they stopped further coal creation and ended the carboniferous period.

It's that same lignin-busting power that might ultimately help conquer a huge problem in large-scale production of biofuels--obtaining plant carbohydrates. The possible plan: Use white rot to break down lignin to release cellulose from cell walls, which could then be broken down into sugars, fermented into alcohols and converted to biofuels.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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