Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Turn Face the Strange

To some, pests are just another horror in the pantry; to us, they are candidate organisms in the national energy solution and, if we are to seek “ch-ch-ch-changes,” we must “turn and face the strange.”

By JIM LANE, Editor & Publisher, Biofuels Digest

I am not quite sure if there are ferrets and prairie chickens keeling over this morning in Missouri from overdoses of ergot (a fungus from which LSD is synthesized), but if wildlife are expiring in great numbers following a massive acid experience, we appear to have the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to thank for it.

The sad part of the tale? The CRP was designed in part to protect and enhance wildlife — rather than play a role in its further endangerment.

Unintended consequences — we hear of it a lot, with respect to farm policy, energy policy, foreign policy — well, a lot of things that tend to end in “policy.”

The idea of the CRP was so elegant and simple, people thought it beautiful. Contribute land, get paid. It afforded, at once, a crop price support mechanism, soil protection, wildlife conservation and, latterly, a carbon sink. But visions of restored prairie, and a return of wildlife were not realized. What arrived instead was fescue — a lot of it — generally blown in from Texas.

90 percent of it is infected with an endophyte, and contains ergot — which is poisonous to prairie wildlife and about as useful a contribution to conservation as the Earth Room, 280,000 pounds of dirt dumped in a trendy New York City loft since 1977 as an artistic installation (it also produces fungus and not much else).

A hefty amount of carbon is sequestered by endophyte-infected fescue, so it has some carbon benefit. But that is courtesy of its ability to powerfully eradicate microbial life in CRP_1its growing path and, by creating a nanoscopic underground Chernobyl, storing carbon that otherwise would be munched and released by those pesky organisms known as life forms.

What you get stored up in ergot-laced CRP appears to be a measurable amount of lysergic acid. Good news for the synthetic LSD market, students of land use change theory, unreconstructed hippies and possibly Ram Dass. Not much good in there for anyone else.

But, let’s not just criticize fungi. After all, where would we be without the hero of bread, wine and ethanol production: our friends, the yeasts?

Further, Biofuels Digest recently declared 2010 its “Year of the Pest” and opined, “What, after all is a pest, but something which is more efficient than its competitors, and thereby upsets the existing order, just as energy research seeks to achieve? So much of what we are doing in biomass-based research is, in fact, a form of interviewing pests and invasive species to unlock their secrets. Worth considering as we routinely apply antibacterial lotions, chemicals to wipe out algal blooms, and hire the local Orkin representative to come and wipe out a nest of termites.”

Worth considering as we sweep away fungal growths or instinctively throw away molds. To some, just another horror in the pantry. To the Digest, candidate organisms in the national energy solution and, to use David Bowie’s phrase, if we are to seek “ch-ch-ch-changes” in our global energy platform — changes we can believe in — we must “turn and face the strange.”

So, while fungi may play out better in the lab than in the Conservation Reserve, here are five stories that qualify both as decidedly strange, yet decidedly promising. They have CRP_2put fun and excitement back into fungi, far more so than the sad, lame news about more mismanaged “CRP out of Washington.”

1.) In August, researchers working on the soil fungus Trichoderma reesei — found eating away canvas and clothing in the Solomon Islands during WWII  — have discovered a means to breed the fungus as a means of improving its genetic abilities to convert cellulose into glucose, the key first step in converting cellulose to biofuels. Previously, the species was believed to be asexual.

In May 2008, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute and Los Alamos National Laboratory originally announced that the biomass-degrading fungus, Trichoderma reesei, has an array of enzymes for cellulosic ethanol production. The fungus attained notoriety for its fabric-rotting capability in South Pacific operations during the Second World War.

“Improved industrial enzyme ‘cocktails’ from T. reesei and other fungi will enable more economical conversion of biomass from such feedstocks as the perennial grasses Miscanthus and switchgrass, wood from fast-growing trees like poplar, agricultural crop residues, and municipal waste into next-generation biofuels,” the researchers said. Their research has originally published in Nature Biotechnology.

2.) Last March, research teams from Montana State University, Yale and the Center for Lab Services in Washington state have reported more details on the discovery of a fungus that synthesizes diesel compounds. The report is published in Microbiology. The fungus was discovered inside ulmo trees in the rainforest areas of South America’s Patagonia region.

“This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances,” said lead researcher Gary Strobel of Montana State University.

CRP_33.) In December, Dyadic Intl. published an in-depth description of its Chrysosporium lucknowense (C1) fungus platform, in the Journal of Cereal Science. The article highlights the natural ability of the fungus to produce neutral cellulases, as well as the discovery of hemicellulase and esterase-encoding genes in the fungus.

“All these enzymes were found to be active towards arabinoxylans, demonstrating the high potential of C1 as a producer of hemicellulolytic enzymes,” the article summary said. Earlier last month, Dyadic announced an agreement with The Scripps Research Institute to re-annotate the genome of Dyadic’s patented and proprietary C1 fungus.

4.) In November, researchers at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) have focused on a cocktail of enzymes generated by leafcutter ants for opportunities to improve cellulosic ethanol yields. Leafcutter ants live in tropical gardens and have developed a sophisticated fungal system — with the ants and fungi being completely interdependent for survival. Garret Suen, a post-doctoral research fellow at the GLBRC told Biomass magazine, “The fungus-growing ant system is … one of the most complex symbioses that’s described in nature.”

5.) In September 2008, researchers identified a fungus residing in Asian long-horned beetles as a source for the chemicals that permit insects to break down hard woods in their stomachs. “Lignin is nature’s plastic and any organism that wants to get to the sugars in a plant has to be able to get past this protective barrier,” professor Ming Tien of Penn State said.

Thanks to Digest subscriber and Frank Oberle for providing images and background information on Missouri’s CRP lands. For more information, please visit

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