US university studies new method for biofuels

Researchers from Oklahoma State University (OSU) have analysed a genome they say has great potential for the cost-effective production of biofuel.

The team, led by associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics Mostafa Elshahed, has described multiple features within the genome of rumen fungus, organisms that reside in the gut of ruminant animals.

The fungus was found to be efficient at digesting plant biomass, something Elshahed says makes it an ‘extremely interesting, and yet-rarely utilized, candidate’ for biofuel production. The overall genomic and experimental analyses indicate the fungus efficiently degrades a wide range of non-crop plant materials, such as switchgrass, corn stover, sorghum and energy cane.

‘Unlike the absolute majority of fungi that are free-living and breathe atmospheric oxygen, rumen fungi have a restricted habitat in the rumen and alimentary tract of herbivores,’ he says.  ‘They grow in the absence of oxygen, have adapted their genome to living in the presence of a large and diverse number of bacteria, and have even acquired useful genes from these bacteria, including multiple genes that aid in digestion of plant biomass.’

The next phase of the OSU team’s work will be to improve the ratio of ethanol to acids produced by the degradation of plant biomass from this fungus. The fungus currently produces more acids than ethanol as a final product.

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