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Research Shows ‘White Rot’ Fungus Key For Carbon Capture

As the world continues to work tirelessly towards a seemingly endless number of possible solutions to future proof a changing climate, it is important to remember that all of the hypothetical fixes can be broken into two schools of thought. Some want to stop emissions at the source, arguing that it is essential to set a new foundation around renewable energy sources. In their eyes, to do anything else would be akin to a band-aid fix and would need constant re-assessment along the way. Others say that, while developing a clean power generation infrastructure is important, we as a society must also not be too idealistic. They believe that technologies that remove carbon and other pollutants from the atmosphere will be key in supplementing the impact of solar and wind sources while also serving as a cleanup method for any excess emissions. If we are first able to trap any lagging carbon emissions from coal plants it would, in theory, buy enough time to get renewable power generation ramped up worldwide.

Although there is merit to the idea of not giving government and businesses a ‘safety net’ to spur serious action on renewable energy generation, the reality is that a utopia fully powered by solar and wind energy is pretty far in the future. While the international community continues to work on that end, it makes sense to stay aware of the developing carbon sequestration and removal techniques soon to be at our disposal. Over in Golden, Colorado, researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have made an impressive discovery that has major implications for the next phase of carbon sequestration worldwide.

Image courtesy of NREL

According to NREL microbiologist Davinia Salvachúa Rodríguez, the answer lies in fungus– specifically white-rot fungus.

It all comes down to the tendency for this type of fungus to digest lignin, an essential building block of trees and other organic life that makes up as much as 30 percent of all carbon present on the planet.

While white-rot fungi’s proclivity for lignin has been well-documented for some time, what happened to the carbon that was left behind was a question more or less left unanswered. Some thought it simply evaporated into the atmosphere, while others theorized it remained trapped in a ‘microbial feedback loop’ at the earth’s surface. Salvachua had held a different hypothesis– now, she has the data to prove it. 

“What we have demonstrated here is that white-rot fungi can actually utilize lignin-derived aromatic compounds as a carbon source, which means they can eat them and utilize them to grow,” said Salvachua in her recently published paper on the topic titled “Intracellular pathways for lignin catabolism in white-rot fungi.” In it, she describes how, contrary to conventionally-held beliefs that carbon was simply a byproduct of the interaction, the fungus would consume the carbon itself to grow in size. A revelation like this, says Salvachua, is significant news for sequestration-minded businesses worldwide. “That is another strategy for carbon sequestration in nature and has not been reported before.” 

Image courtesy of Talha Hassan

If we could take this chemical process and adapt it at scale towards sequestering large quantities of carbon, the implications could be enormous. It is a culmination of more than ten years of studies involving white-rot fungi at Salvachua’s Renewable Resources and Enabling Sciences division at NREL. However, following a $2.5 million grant from the Department of Energy, it looks like Salvachua’s work is far from over.


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