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On 2 November, this word was known only to a few people, all associated with Montana State University (MSU). Within two days, it had turned up in many hundreds of press reports worldwide, such is the speed of linguistic evolution in our wired world. The stimulus was a press release from the university that announced a discovery by Gary Strobel, a plant scientist.

He and his team at MSU found a remarkable fungus living inside the ulmo tree in northern Patagonia. Unlike any organism previously known, the fungus produces a range of hydrocarbons to fight off competitors; these are similar to compounds in existing fossil fuels and he says they could be used in a diesel engine without modification. Better still, the fungus feeds on cellulose — the main constituent of the organic waste, such as sawdust and plant stalks, that’s left after timber and food production — so valuable agricultural land to grow its raw material wouldn’t be needed.

The fungus may be just what’s needed to make biofuels to replace fossil fuels; or the genes that enable it to produce hydrocarbons could be transferred to organisms that could do the job better. Though this discovery has excited many researchers, it’s as yet a long way from being a practical method of making biofuels.

The word includes the prefix myco-, an irregular creation from Greek mukes, a fungus or mushroom, which is in words such as mycology, the scientific study of fungi.

Scientists were amazed to find that it was able to convert plant cellulose directly into the biofuel, dubbed “myco-diesel”. Crops normally have to be converted to sugar and fermented before they can be turned into useful fuel.

Press Association, 4 Nov. 2008

Some car manufacturers who shun ethanol might consider myco-diesel or fuels produced by other microbes, said a MSU release.

The Hindu, India, 4 Nov. 2008

Page created 15 Nov. 2008

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Last modified: 15 November 2008.