Ancient Fungus That May Have Ended Coal Era Could Help Make Biofuels

By Chelsea Whyte on June 29, 2012 11:11 PM EDT

white rot
This is a scanning electron micrograph of wood that has been decayed by the white rot species Punctularia strigoso-zonata. The wood structure, including lignin and cellulose, has been largely destryed by the fungus. (Photo: Robert Blachette)

The fossilized remains of plants make up the coal found deep in the ground - hence the term 'fossil fuel' - and all of the coal that powers 50 percent of U.S. electricity comes from one period 360 to 300 millions of years ago.

After that point, coal stopped being formed, and a type of fungus called white rot may be the culprit.  

A new study, which was conducted by a team of 71 researchers from 12 countries, was published in Science and includes the first large-scale comparison of fungi that cause rot decay suggests that the evolution of white rot may have brought the Carboniferous period to an end.

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Coal is mostly made up of lignin, made up of the rigid cell walls of plants that help give wood its strength, which is left behind after fungus eats away the rest of the plant matter.

The study found that white rot fungi, which are the only types of microorganisms that can break down lignin, evolved around 300 million  years ago, coinciding with the end of the 60 million year period during which all coal deposits were made.

"The synchrony between the rise of white rot fungi and the close of the Carboniferous was no coincidence," said researchers in a statement. White rot breaks down lignin using enzymes and it destroyed huge accumulations of woody debris that otherwise would not have decayed and instead would have fossilized into coal.  

"It's an interesting hypothesis. We have found data in support of that," says genomics expert Dr Igor Grigoriev from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, according to ABC Science Online.

This information came to light thanks to the genome sequencing of 31 Agaricomycetes fungi, both brown and white rot. Through a comparative analysis of these genomes, researchers were able to spot that around 290 million years ago, fungi that could break down lignin arrived on the scene, reports io9.com.

The findings were a bit of a surprise result from a research project focused on understanding fungal diversity and their role in converting plant material into biofuels.

The ability of white rot fungi to decay lignin may ultimately be used to help conquer what is among the most longstanding and vexing problems associated with the large-scale production of biofuels. In order to convert the carbohydrates, or sugars, inside plant material into fuels, fungi like white rot may be able to break down the cell walls.

That would release cellulose from cell walls, which could then be broken down into sugars. Next, the sugars would be fed to yeast that would be fermented into alcohols that would provide the bases for new biofuels.

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