Tree Fungus a Factor in Petroleum Production

on November 8, 2008

ScienceNOW: “Diesel Fuel From a Tree Fungus?” Factors in petroleum production: high pressure and heat, millions of years, underground drilling, and . . . tree fungus?

Montana State University plant pathologist Gary Strobel has hit black gold—Texas tea, you might say—but not where you might expect. Strobel and colleagues discovered a tree in Patagonia whose stem contained a fungus, Gliocladium roseum, that produces hydrocarbons like those found in gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel.

“That may persuade the next generation of oil explorers to trade in their seismographs for pruning shears.”

Of course, in today’s quest for renewable energy sources, the discovery could prove monumental, as many companies are already seeking ways to convert plant material to usable energy sources. Specifically, synthetic biologist Stephen Del Cardayre, vice president for research and development at startup company LS9, suggests scientists might use the genes of G. roseum to engineer industrial microbes to do the same job, only better.

Specifically, G. roseum produces 55 different volatile hydrocarbons, including several that are common components of diesel fuels. Strobel believes the fungus produces the hydrocarbons to deter other organisms from crowding its niche.

This isn’t Strobel’s first fungal discovery. In the past, he has come upon other hydrocarbon-producing fungi, as well as finding a fungus in Honduras in 1997 that produces a natural antibiotic. Meanwhile, Strobel’s son Scott, a Yale University enzymologist, has found similar fungi in South America that also produce various hydrocarbons.

All this prompts ScienceNOW’s Robert Service to quip, “That may persuade the next generation of oil explorers to trade in their seismographs for pruning shears.”

This story is fascinating on two fronts. First, it’s incredible to read about these hydrocarbon-producing fungi, whose biochemistry must be quite unique and which no doubt is another design feature that will be chalked up to evolution. Second, any news of fossil fuel material being produced in front of our eyes is a reminder that such old-age conjecture (e.g., fossil fuels are proof of an old earth) is just that: conjecture based on presuppositions, and certainly not supported by actual scientific observation.


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