Coal is one of the most powerful and dangerous sources of energy on the planet. Formed over millions of years, coal deposits were once simply ancient plant species. When the plants died, they fell to the earth and were eventually buried, but they didn’t decay in the same way plants do today.

Without all the fungi we now count on to speed the degradation process, lignin in the cell walls remained rigid, allowing the pressure of burial to compress the organic matter into peat and then coal over many thousands of years. The geological record shows that at some point around 290 million years ago, an ancestor to Agaricomycetes, or white rot fungus, appeared on the scene. Capable of breaking down large amounts of dense plant matter, scientists think this fungus single-handedly ended the formation of coal deposits on our planet (that’s right folks, coal is a finite resource and eventually, it will all be gone).

New research from a team of international scientists, including some at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI), shows that while the emergence of this fungus spelled the end of coal, it could be the key to jump-starting the beginning of renewable biofuels, as well as better understanding how the planet stores carbon.

“The concept of the invention of an enzyme that can break down the ‘unbreakable’ is really great,” said Kenneth Nealson, Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth Sciences and Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California. “The idea that a stable (inedible) form of organic carbon can become edible (and thus more difficult to bury over time), changes our perspective not only on global energy storage in the past, but on what it means for present day carbon sequestration and storage, in that sense this idea will have a big impact on our thinking about the past and the present.”

The team is hard at work, trying to sequence a thousand fungal genomes, two from each of 500 families, over the next five years. So far, the researchers have compared 31 fungal genomes–26 of which were sequenced at the Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute, including 12 that were sequenced at the DOE JGI specifically for the study.

“The 12 new genome sequences could serve as potential resources for industrial microbiologists aiming to develop new tools for producing biofuels, bioremediation or other products, perhaps by using recombinant DNA methods or by selecting new organisms for fermentation,” said David Hibbett of Clark University, who led the study.

Photo: Fungi in the Agaricomycetes class. Credit: Daryl Thompson/wikimedia

via CleanTechnica