Science and Technology News

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Scientists Turning a Fungus into Fuel

Daniel Spakowicz is a fourth-year student working towards a PhD in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University. He is originally from Oshkosh, WI.

I’m part of a team at Yale University that’s studying biofuels — we’re working to make gasoline from fungi! The team, consisting of two graduate students and three postdocs, is directed by Dr. Scott Strobel, a National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellow (NSSEFF) funded by the Department of Defense’s National Defense Education Program. NSSEFF supports world-class faculty members and their development of the next generation of leading scientists.

Current biofuels are very different from fossil-derived fuels. Their use requires the modification of our current engines and infrastructure, which can be very costly. In addition, current biofuels are made from food sources.

At Yale, we study a fungus that grows on dead trees and makes compounds similar to gasoline. If we could understand how this fungus is able to produce these compounds, then we may be able to scale it up to be a cost-competitive source of biofuel.

An October 4th, 2010, New York Times article, “U.S. Military Orders Less Dependence on Fossil Fuels,” described the DoD’s recognition of the vulnerability of long fuel supply convoys. What if the fuel was produced at a forward theatre? Imagine being able to make your own gasoline, wherever, from waste materials. Or, we could take the genes responsible for this production and put them into another organism, like algae, to make gasoline from sunlight.

My goal is to identify the production pathway and focus on the genetic aspects of the fungus. I try to assign functions to genes that we think are responsible by knocking them out or by down- or up-regulating their expression. This turns out to be pretty challenging since previously no one has worked with this organism.

I entered the lab at the earliest stage of the project, just as the initial observations were being made. This was really exciting because I could go in whatever direction I wanted. It was also difficult, though, because so little was known about the organism.

Figuring out basic features like what growth medium is best, at what temperature and for how long, were key pieces of knowledge I took for granted in my previous work with model organisms. It’s exciting, though, and we’re working as fast as we can!

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