Fungi from goat’s stomachs could lead to better biofuels, study finds

Researchers have revealed through a new study that fungi from the gut of herbivores like goats, horses and sheep could be used to make biofuel.

The researchers report in the journal Science that these anaerobic gut fungi perform as well as the best fungi engineered by industry in their ability to convert plant material into sugars that are easily transformed into fuel and other products.

"Nature has engineered these fungi to have what seems to be the world's largest repertoire of enzymes that break down biomass," said Michelle O'Malley, lead author and professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

These enzymes — tools made of protein — work together to break down stubborn plant material.

The researchers found that the fungi adapt their enzymes to wood, grass, agricultural waste, or whatever scientists feed it. The findings suggest that industry could modify the gut fungi so that they produce improved enzymes that will outperform the best available ones, potentially leading to cheaper biofuels and bio-based products.

To make the finding, O'Malley drew upon two US Department of Energy Office of Science User Facilities: the Environmental Molecular Science Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the DOE Joint Genome Institute.

O'Malley's study is the first to result from a partnership between the two facilities called Facilities Integrating Collaborations for User Science or FICUS. The partnership allows scientists around the world to draw on capabilities at both Office of Science user facilities to get a more complete understanding of fundamental scientific questions.

O'Malley's team also included scientists from PNNL, DOE JGI, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and Harper Adams University.