Once again, Fungi may come to the rescue! A study published by Strobel et al. found that the endophyte Gliocladium roseum produces a complex mixture of volatile hydrocarbons and derivatives that closely resemble those found in fossil fuels. Dr. Strobel has been called the “Indiana Jones of Fungus Hunters” because of his forays into the wild to search for for fungi with novel bioactive compounds. This biofuel-producing endophyte was discovered living in trees the Patagonian rainforest. According to Strobel, the combination of fuel substances produced by G. roseum are unique and promising. Even better is that this fungus is producing hydrocarbons directly from cellulose — a far better source of biofuel than anything we use at the moment. I look forward to the day that I can power up my car with this “myco-diesel!
Endophytes are sneaky little buggers. Relatively little is known about them because they live their life hidden inside plants (more specifically, in between plant cells!). But unlike pathogens, they do not produce symptoms or signs to alert us to their presence. They are extremely common (found in almost every plant species we’ve looked for them in) but their relationships with plants are not well understood. They might be good for their plant partners — they can create a barrier to keep attackers at bay. Or, they can be bad for their plant partners — plant leaves with lots of endophytes tend to lose a greater amount of water.
Why be a fungus hunter? Endophytes are a major source of bioactive compounds, including antiobiotics. For example, Dr. Strobel discovered a specimen that grows on the Yew tree that produced Taxol, the world’s first billion- dollar anti-cancer drug.
(oh, and by the way, taxol can be isolated from both the plant AND the fungus, suggesting some horizontal gene transfer is going on here!)
Click here to read about some of the other compounds produced by endophytic microbes that have been studied in Strobel’s lab.