The complete genetic makeup of two heat-loving fungi often found in composts that self-ignite without flame or spark has been decoded by an international team of scientists. Their findings may lead to the faster and greener development of biomass-based fuels, chemicals, and other industrial materials.
“Organisms that thrive at high temperatures are rare. Fewer than 40 heat-loving fungi have been identified and they hold great promise in the production of many chemicals and biomass-based fuels,” says Adrian Tsang, a biology professor at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. “We have cracked the genetic blueprint of two such fungi. To our knowledge these are the only organisms, aside from a few bacteria, whose genomes have been fully sequenced from end-to end.”
In sequencing Myceliophthora thermophila and Thielavia terrestris, the research team also discovered that both fungi could accelerate the breakdown of fibrous materials from plants at temperatures ranging from 40 to 70 C. This temperature range is too hot for many of the typical enzymes that form an important component of some industrial processes used to degrade biomass into a range of chemicals and products.
Yet where others fail, these fungi thrive. “Our next goal is to figure out how these organisms flourish at high temperatures and what makes them so efficient in breaking down plant materials,” says Tsang.
These discoveries will further stimulate the search for better ways to transform green waste — stalks, twigs, agricultural straw, and leaves — into renewable chemicals and fuels. Enzymes produced by these fungi could also be tweaked to replace the use of environmentally harmful chemicals in the manufacture of plant-based commodities such as pulp and paper.
Having a multi-sectoral research team, composed of scientists from academia, government, and industry, is essential to making these new advances. “We could not have made these findings separately, since this type of research benefits tremendously from the intellectual input of researchers from different sectors,” Tsang says. “This is an important discovery as we position ourselves from a fossil-fuel economy to one that uses biomass materials.”