Fungus might ruin your bread but its invasive nature could also lead to a new source of renewable energy. Scientists at Montana State University made a surprising discovery while conducting a recent study that tracks the unique products of endophytes — fungi or bacteria — that can live inside a plant for at least part of its life without causing disease. It’s believed that endophytes produce bioactive products that are potentially beneficial for medicine, industry and energy uses, replacing less attractive biofuels like ethanol.
In the study, published recently in the journal Microbial Ecology, scientist Gary Strobel and his team looked closely at an endophyte known as Hypoxylon, a fungus that’s common in tropical and semitropical plants. They wanted to identify the volatile organic compounds that it produces as well as its antimicrobial activity and genetic makeup. They confirmed that Hypoxylon actually emits volatile organic compounds that protect its host from microbial attack. Unexpectedly, they discovered other compounds produced by the fungi, called monoterpenes, mean it could be used as fuel.
“Monoterpenes are excellent fuels,” Strobel said. “In fact, ethanol is a terrible fuel for America since it can cause engine problems, is not energy dense, and is made by yeast fermentation. Yeasts only utilize sugars and starch, and the sources of these are also human and animal feeds. Endophytes such as Hypoxylon can utilize agricultural, forestry and urban wastes, grow nicely, and at the same time make monoterpenes, such as cineole.”
It may sound far-fetched, but Strobel isn’t the only one to think the monoterpene (called 1,8-cineole) has potential as a fuel. The Department of Energy has approved a project to research methods of manipulating the biological pathways leading to the production of monoterpenes. Strobel and his team have already crafted a method of trapping volatile organic compounds during the fungal fermentation process so that they can be isolated and studied further for their potential benefits.