Two Yale undergraduates have discovered two new species of fungi that have the potential to revolutionize the biofuel industry.
Led by molecular biophysics and biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, who is also vice president for West Campus planning and program development, Rahul Dalal ’11 and Kyra Jefferson-George ’12 found two new organisms during an expedition to Ecuador as part of MBB 230: “Rainforest Expedition and Lab.” The novel discoveries are a stepping stone to more sustainable and environmentally friendly biofuels, said Evan Beach, an associate research scientist and program manager for green chemistry and engineering at Yale.
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After traveling to Ecuador during the spring break of 2009 under the leadership of Strobel to visit a “dry forest” near Guayaquil, a mangrove swamp and a “cloud forest” in the Andes Mountains, the students isolated their samples and performed assays to determine the potential applications of their fungi.
Initially, both Dalal and Jefferson-George choose plants for reasons completely unrelated to the biofuels industry. Dalal said he wanted to study fungi residing within plants that have cancer-killing applications, while Jefferson-George said she wanted to research plants useful in fighting diabetes.
“Professor Strobel doubted that there would be plants used to treat diabetes in Ecuador, but when I talked to our guides, they pointed to several plants,” she said. (Strobel had explained that diabetes is primarily contained within developed countries like the United States, so there should be no need for a plant to treat the disease, Jefferson-George said.)
Jefferson-George later found that the fungi she discovered, belonging to the genus Hypoxylon, emitted a very peculiar scent due to their production of a compound called cineole, a compound that has been of interest to the biofuel industry for quite some time.
Since the product smelled similar to eucalyptus, the research group determined that her fungus provided an additional pathway for the synthesis of cineole.
“The two organisms which they isolated make large amounts of C9H12 compounds and have a structure that would be amiable to a fuel additive,” Dan Spakowicz GRD ’12, a graduate student in Strobel’s lab who has worked with this “myco-diesel” in the past, added.
Dalal, after sequencing the genome of his new species, found that the fungi could be used in industrial agriculture to protect plants from pathogens, he said.
Spakowicz added that, unlike current biofuel products such as ethanol, the biofuels produced by these fungi do not contain water, and so new pipelines would not have to be constructed in order to carry the compound.
“The difficulties of supplying the farmers and landowners centers around distribution,” Beach explained.
Not having to construct new pipelines, he said, would be a boon to the biofuel industry.
Both students said they took the class due to an interest in biological research.
“I was interested in the rainforest but I hadn’t had an opportunity to perform biological research,” said Jefferson-George.
Jefferson-George said she will continue research on her fungi and hopes to determine whether they merit a genus of their own.
“Rainforest Expedition and Lab,” or MBB/MCDB 230, is held annually during spring semester and is capped at 16 students, according to the Online Course Information website.
Correction: January 27, 2011
An earlier version of this article misstated that Rahul Dalal ’11 visited Ecuador in 2010. He went in 2009. Accompanying photos were incorrectly attributed to Kyra Jefferson-George; they were supplied by Armed with Science.