GI nuisance from WW2 might be useful for cellulose based ethanol

New Scientist recently mentioned a really cool method for cellulose based ethanol in their daily 60-second science podcast. During the second world war, our GI’s had a problem with a cloth eating fungus that ate through tents and shirts.

It sounds like something out of a bad science fiction novel. During World War II, a fungus called Tricoderma reesei ate its way through US military uniforms and tents in the South Pacific. It chewed up the cloth and used special enzymes to convert the indigestible cellulose into simple sugars. Now that infamous fungus is getting some good publicity. It looks like it might hold a key to improving the production of biofuels.

Scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory published a paper on the fungus’s genetic sequence in this week’s Nature Biotechnology. The organism uses a surprisingly small number of genes to produce its cellulose-munching enzymes. Scientists say this means its production is extremely efficient. They hope to capitalize on the genetic information to find more efficient and cheaper ways to break down cellulose for ethanol in biofuel production. That cellulose could come from a native plant like switchgrass, or even from municipal waste. And fuel from waste, say scientists, is a more carbon-neutral way to power our cars. Which might make veterans forgive the fungus that ate their shirts.

—Cynthia Graber