In my last article, we discussed how mushrooms can be used as a catalytic agent in the biodegradation of fossil fuels and plastics. As more researchers discover the unique properties of mushrooms, wide-spread applications are quickly being created. Several scientists have been experimenting with ways to use mushroom mycelium as an efficient and cost effective way of producing ethanol. One of the largest issues in the ethanol applications is the difficulty of breaking down complex lignins and carbohydrates in crop waste. In nature, mushrooms are the expert decomposer and are capable of creating enzymes far more efficient at reducing biomass into usable sugars (the source of ethanol) than any agent currently on the market.
One strain of mushroom being researched is the Agaricus Bisporus strain (also known as portobello, table or button mushroom). This initiative has been lead by scientists at the University of Warwick in Denmark. Agaricus mushrooms are a specialized decomposers of wood, leaves, and organic litter that are frequently found in forest soil. Scientists at Warwick have been working hard to sequence the genome of this particular strain, and by doing so, hope to isolate the genes responsible for creating the decomposing enzymes, so they can synthesize them in the lab. Through the use of these enzymes, it would be possible to fully break down every part of a plant, from the corn stock to the corn cob, into a source of ethanol. Just below is a picture of Agaricus Bisporus in case you missed it on the dinner table.
Discovering efficient ways to break down plant material is key in managing global carbon in the ethanol industry. Rather than slashing and burning forests to create new crop regions, lands that are already in use can be tapped to their maximum capacity. Many farmers leave agro-waste in the fields to rot, and some burn it. All of this waste could be collected, and with the aid of mushroom enzymes, be used as an inexpensive source of biofuel. This process would also reduce pollution and asthma created by smoke and soot. The Agaricus Bisporus mushroom is currently grown on a global scale, so the infrastructure is already in place to produce significant amounts of the enzymes necessary. Sequencing of the Agaricus Bisporus genome could also lead to better cultivation techniques and yields, providing an economic boost to those who grow these edible mushrooms as a crop.
Exciting progress is also being made in the field of biodiesel. Scientists at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology have developed a cost effective and efficient means of producing biodiesel using the mushroom strain Metarhizium Anisopliae. Production of biodiesel typically involves adding heat to a mixture of methanol, lye and vegetable oil until esters are formed. This process can take up to several hours, causing a significant waste of energy. However, the scientists at IICT found that Metarhizium Anisopliae produces an enzyme, known as lipase, which can bind methanol to oil without adding any heat. In order to synthesize biodiesel, the enzyme producing fungus is compacted into small pellets, and passed through a mixture of methanol and sunflower oil. Studies are underway to determine how much energy this whole process can save.
In the search for fossil fuel alternatives, it is important that we keep an open mind. We have yet to discover the “perfect” energy source, and it should be our mission to search for and improve upon our current methods of energy generation wherever possible. As the issue of global warming continues to stare us in the face, we are quickly realizing that nature has a precarious balance. Push that balance to far to any one side, and we may disrupt it entirely. The necessary steps we must take to maintain that balance require cooperation with the environment. Organisms in nature have, and always will be, linked by a give and take connection.
A symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi occurs naturally in the environment. The fungi help provide essential nutrients to the plant by breaking down soil components, while the plant provides sugars for the fungi. Perhaps it is possible for humans and fungi to create a similar relationship whereby we can mutually benefit each other. To learn more about how mushrooms work check out the Planet Earth video series produced by Sir David Attenborough available through Discovery Channel.
Rowe, Aaron (Aug. 20, 2007). Fungi Make Biodiesel Efficiently at Room Temperature. Retrieved Feb. 24, 2009, from http://www.wired.com
(July 19, 2007). Mushroom Genome Could Assist In Biofuel Production and Carbon Management. Green Car Congress, Retrieved Feb. 24, 2009, from http://www.greencarcongress.com
(Nov. 08, 2008). Now, biofuel is mushrooming! . Retrieved Feb. 24, 2009, from http://www.commodityonline.com