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Fungi Key to Improving Ethanol Production

Biofuel is not a new product. When the first diesel engine was presented at the World Exhibition of Paris in 1900, it ran on peanut oil. Henry Ford’s Model T was designed to use hemp-derived biofuel, and even ethanol was in use during World Wars I and II. The past 20 years have seen a resurgence in interest and research pertaining to biofuels as scientists venture beyond corn-based ethanol.

Christopher Baker, assistant professor of chemistry

Christopher Baker

“Most gasoline is about 10 percent ethanol,” said Christopher Baker, assistant professor of chemistry. “The problem is that to produce ethanol we have to feed other types of cells—yeast for example—these refined sugars. The effort it takes to produce that sugar is more energy than we get back out when we produce the ethanol.”

Baker’s JDRD project is an early step toward finding alternatives to this expensive fuel-making process by studying fungi. Fungi have evolved over millions of years to survive in challenging environments, in part through their ability to find nutrients where other types of cells cannot. One of the ways they do this is by secreting a chemical that helps digest otherwise indigestible substances.

Fungi can often be seen growing on tree bark—but how are they surviving there? Tree bark is generally composed of lignocellulose, a polymer network of sugar molecules. Because they are linked, these sugars can’t be used as nutrients. This is where the fungi come in. They produce an enzyme called laccase that pulls the lignocellulose apart, breaking it down into its base sugars. Those sugars can then be used to make fuel.

“Once you can take these materials that are otherwise not nutrients and turn them into nutrients, you can feed those nutrients to something like a yeast cell and the yeast cell will turn that sugar into alcohol. That’s a vital, important step for producing biofuels,” said Baker.

Baker’s JDRD team is building a sensor platform designed to study laccase secretion. His platform will allow for the rapid high-throughput study of the effect of a variety of reagents on fungal cells with reference to enzyme production. Once the platform is complete, Baker’s team will hand off the device to their collaborator at ORNL, Jessy Labbé. Labbé’s team has become proficient in producing and sustaining fungal cells in a lab, a major achievement in the arena of mycology. They will use Baker’s device to work toward encouraging the best laccase production in their fungal cells.

“They have this unique ability to genetically engineer fungi,” said Baker. “Our technology will allow them to make many genetic modifications, screen them all in this high-density platform, and be able to see which is producing the most of this enzyme.”

Baker’s project not only will improve biofuel production, but also—because fungi are important in medicine, agriculture, and basic biological research—has the potential to affect a number of vital research areas.