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From compost to sustainable fuels

Sequenced fungi genomes are promising agents in the creation of sustainable fuels.
October 3, 2011
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By Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins

Two heat-loving fungi, often found in composts that self-ignite without flame or spark, could soon have new vocations.

Adrian Tsang is a biology professor and director of Concordia’s Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics. | Photo by Concordia University
Adrian Tsang is a biology professor and director of Concordia’s Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics. | Photo by Concordia University

The complete genetic makeup of Myceliophthora thermophila and Thielavia terrestris has been decoded by an international group of scientists. The findings, published in Nature Biotechnology, 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 senior author Adrian Tsang, a biology professor at Concordia University and director of its Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics.

“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,” he continues.

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.

The complete genetic makeup of Myceliophthora thermophila, a fungus, has been decoded to help propel the creation of clean energy sources.
The complete genetic makeup of Myceliophthora thermophila, a fungus, has been decoded to help propel the creation of clean energy sources.

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.”

Partners in research:
This study was supported by the US Department of Energy, the Cellulosic Biofuel Network of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Genome Canada and Génome Québec.

Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics
Adrian Tsang works from Concordia’s stunning new Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics (CSFG), which will be inaugurated this fall during the sixth anniversary of the naming of Montreal as a UNESCO City of Design.

The CSFG was designed by a consortium of architects — Marosi+Troy, Cardinal Hardy and Jodoin Lamarre Pratte — and its construction has helped re-energize the surrounding Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood by creating a brilliantly attractive urban landscape.

About the study:
The paper, “Comparative Genomic Analysis of the Thermophilic Biomass-Degrading Fungi Myceliophthora thermophila and Thielavia terrestris,” published in Nature Biotechnology, was co-authored by scientists from Concordia University and the McGill University and Génome Québec Innovation Centre in Canada; Novozymes, Inc., the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, University of New Mexico, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories in the United States; the Université de Provence and the Université de la Méditerranée in France; the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom; Utrecht University in the Netherlands; and Macquarie University in Australia.

Related links:
•    Cited research
•    Concordia Department of Biology
•    Centre for Structural and Functional Genomics

Media contact:
Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins
Senior advisor, external communications 
Concordia University
Phone: 514-848-2424, ext. 5068
Email: s-j.desjardins@concordia.ca  
Twitter: http://twitter.com/concordia 
 



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