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Win-win: Ancient fungus that ended coal formation could boost biofuel production

A version of this article originally appeared on Clean Technica.

Fungi in the Agaricomycetes class, whose ancestors may have stopped coal deposits. (Photo by Seattle.roamer.)

In an ironic twist, genomics researchers have stumbled upon an incredible discovery -- the same ancestral fungus that ended coal formation millennia ago may now be able to boost biofuel and bioenergy production.

The proposal, recently presented by a team of 71 researchers from 12 countries including the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI), may have identified what ended the development of coal deposits from fossilized plant remains 360-300 million years ago during the Carboniferous period.

Coal as an energy source is incredibly unique -- combining one of the most potent available combinations of stored energy with the largest concentration of harmful emissions. But this uniqueness was entirely due to the absence of fungi capable of breaking down the lignin polymer that kept plant cell walls rigid enough to prevent decay.

Over millions of years, this “unbreakable” plant material converted into peat and then coal, and eventually launched both the Industrial Revolution and modern global warming. But, suddenly (geologically speaking), the development of new coal deposits came to a hard stop around 290 million years ago.

The DOE JGI researchers theorize this change was likely the result of the development and spread of an ancestor of Agaricomycetes, or white rot fungus, which could break down the great bulk of plant biomass into basic chemical components and release the stored carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

So, basically, we have white rot fungus to thank for limiting the Earth’s coal deposits and limiting the amount of carbon dioxide, mercury, and other greenhouse gases that can be emitted into the atmosphere. Good job, Agaricomycetes!

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Coal down, cleantech up in electric utility survey

A version of this article originally appeared on CleanTechnica.

Utilities in the United States are shifting away from coal toward sustainability initiatives, electric vehicles, and clean technology -- but uncertainty about pending regulation continues to loom large, and environmental efforts may significantly hike consumer rates.

These findings come from “Strategic Directions in the U.S. Electric Utility Industry,” a survey of more than 500 utility executives conducted by industry consulting firm Black & Veatch (B&V). The annual survey [PDF] is intended to predict how the utility industry will evolve over time.

[Editor's note: We reported highlights from the survey earlier this week on Grist. Here's a a deeper look into the report.]