Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

Genes copied from a common fungus could simplify the production of ethanol from abundant materials such as grass and wood chips, a development that could one day help ethanol compete with gasoline.

Scientists have taken genes from a fungus that grows on grass and dead plants, and transplanted them into yeast that is already used to turn sugar into ethanol. The genes let the yeast ferment parts of plants that it normally can’t digest, potentially streamlining the production of ethanol.

“It’s just a more efficient process,” says Jamie Cate, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley and at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Shaving off every dime that you can could make it compete with oil,” says Cate, who led the work.

Most ethanol is produced using simple sugars, like the glucose derived from corn kernels or sugar cane. Ethanol producers would like to use glucose from more abundant sources, such as corn husks and stalks, switchgrass, wood waste, and other tough plant materials. But those plant parts are made of cellulose, a carbohydrate built from long chains of sugars. For yeast to produce ethanol from these materials, the complex carbohydrate has to first be broken down into very simple sugars, a process that takes time and normally requires the addition of expensive enzymes.

With the new technique, ethanol makers would no longer have to break cellulose down into simple sugars. Instead, they would only need to break down cellulose into an intermediate material called cellodextrin. The modified yeast can work with this, instead of waiting for it to be broken down all the way to glucose, removing steps that cost time and money.

Yeast takes a simple molecule such as glucose and digests it as food, producing alcohol as a by-product. The Berkeley researchers, along with a colleague from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Tianjin, found that a fuzzy orange fungus called Neospora crassa that grows on dead plant matter produces two different proteins that help transport more complex cellulose molecules into cells for digestion. In addition, they found that the fungus produces an enzyme that can help further break down those molecules. The researchers then pored through the genome of a Neospora crassa to find the genes responsible for these abilities

7 comments. Share your thoughts »

Credit: Jamie Cate and Susan Jenkins, UC Berkeley

Tagged: Energy, Materials, ethanol, biomass, renewable fuel

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me
×

A Place of Inspiration

Understand the technologies that are changing business and driving the new global economy.

September 23-25, 2014
Register »