MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand with Alex Chadwick with his secret story. Alex, you've been muttering about it for weeks now. What is it?
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
It's being published tomorrow in the journal Microbiology. A researcher at Montana State University found a plant in South America that makes diesel.
BRAND: As in diesel fuel for cars?
CHADWICK: Yes. Mycodiesel, myco means fungus, and diesel is diesel.
(Soundbite of an engine starting)
CHADWICK: All this begins about a decade ago with a plant pathologist at Montana State University in Bozeman, Gary Strobel. Bio-prospecting in Patagonia in southern Chile, he collected a stem from a certain tree in a very old forest there, and he extracted a fungus from it.
Dr. GARY STROBEL (Plant Pathology, Montana State University): Gliocladium roseum.
CHADWICK: He left the specimen in cold storage until he finally got around to examining it about a year ago, and he noticed peculiar properties. And he sent the fungus off for tests, and then the report came back.
Dr. STROBEL: In over 50 years, I've never seen anything like this.
CHADWICK: That's Gary, now a professor emeritus at Montana. We spoke a few days ago.
Dr. STROBEL: What I was looking at was the essence of diesel fuel. Not bio-diesel, but diesel, the kind of stuff that goes into buses and trucks and cars all around the world.
CHADWICK: And if you had a spoonful of this stuff...
Dr. STROBEL: Yep.
CHADWICK: And poured it into a little diesel engine.
Dr. STROBEL: Yep, it would run.
CHADWICK: Without further refining, without doing anything to it?
Dr. STROBEL: Without doing anything else to it, yes.
CHADWICK: There is a name for this fungus, gliocladium roseum. And here is one more term to know, Endophyte.
Unidentified Man: Endophyte, noun. A plant that lives in the tissue of another plant between the cells.
CHADWICK: Thank you. Endophytes are funguses and bacteria, most too small to see with the eye. But to be useful to their hosts, they produce some amazing compounds.
(Soundbite of an engine starting)
CHADWICK: In 1892, a German inventor named Rudolf Diesel developed an engine that would run on fuel made by heating crude petroleum. Huge industries came to pass, vast fortunes, and it now turns out that Herr Diesel was beaten by a fungus. Why would a plant make diesel fuel?
Dr. STROBEL: We can only speculate, but the answer seems to be, these compounds, as they exist, are inhibitory and lethal to other microorganisms.
CHADWICK: OK. Follow along here. He's saying that the fungus tries to help the host plant discourage invaders. The diesel fumes from gliocladium drive away other microbes.
Dr. STROBEL: But then, that raises another question. Where did diesel come from in the first place?
CHADWICK: Hmm. Well, it's in the ground, right? It's the result of tens of millions of years of heat and pressure on ancient, old, organic material like plants. Yeah, that's basically where we get diesel.
Dr. STROBEL: Is it possible, I ask, that some of the plant material might have contained microorganisms such as this gliocladium?
CHADWICK: That one's a little hard to follow, but very intriguing. Let me try rephrasing. So, you have a theory that maybe this particular fungus is involved hundreds of millions of years ago in beginning to break down organic matter and turn it into something like petroleum.
Dr. STROBEL: You know, maybe.
CHADWICK: Gary has four patents on this fungus already and many more coming. He shares them with colleagues and Montana State. Yale is also a partner and interested to see what might come from gliocladium - tiny, but very productive for a fungus. A vat of it, who knows how much diesel you could get. This could be very big.
(Soundbite of an engine starting)
CHADWICK: I called an expert on technology and entrepreneurship and gave him a vague description of all this. Still secret, remember? This is what he said.
A new energy source. Well, you have to prove it will work at a reasonable cost. A demonstration project, that's going to take a lot of money. And then, you're going to have to convince folks it's OK to put it in their cars. We still don't entirely trust ethanol, he said, and that's a lot more money. And investors have to believe this will all work out, not maybe, not some day, but soon.
It will not take the investor bloodhounds very long to learn more about Gary Strobel. He's made news before and not all favorable.
Dr. STROBEL: I did have a problem about 20 years ago when I told the EPA to take a hike, and they threatened to put me in jail and throw away the key.
CHADWICK: He had a particular bacterium with altered genes. He thought it might stop the spreading plague of Dutch elm disease that threatened the handsome trees once lining town squares and streets almost everywhere. The Environmental Protection Agency said, wait, you need a permit, and sent an application.
Dr. STROBEL: 50 pages of incomprehensible garbage.
CHADWICK: Gary ignored the permit. On his own, he injected the altered bacterium into several young elms in a grove on the Bozeman campus and infected them with Dutch elm. The trees that didn't get the bacterium started dying. The ones that got it thrived, but the controversy, unauthorized release of a genetically altered life form, threatened the university. Gary finally chose to chainsaw the trees into two-foot sections and had it all burned in an incinerator. His wife left him. It was a bad time.
Dr. STROBEL: Now, of all times, and even then, now is not the time to put shackles on new technology, and if we stop doing this, we're going to stagnate.
CHADWICK: Maybe it helps a little in retrospect that Gary's treatment for Dutch elm disease was later found to be very effective. The technique is very popular, not so much in this country, but the Dutch use it a lot.
Dr. STROBEL: I've scoured the earth for not only organisms like gliocladium, but many other endophytes. I've been to almost every rainforest on the plant.
CHADWICK: I have seen some of the places where Gary Strobel goes looking for endophytes, the old forests of Africa and the Amazon. The plants and the things inside them, they grow old and enormous, so looking at them, you feel small.
Dr. STROBEL: It's interesting. When you go to a rainforest, there's no disease. It's very hard to find a plant that's sick. The forest is healthy, unlike many of our grain fields. We need to look at forests in a way other than to cut down the trees. We need to save the forest, not only for eco reasons, that is CO2 fixation and removal of carbon dioxide, but also of the little creatures that grow there, that live inside of plants, that can change the whole way we think about our world.
CHADWICK: The endophyte, save the forest for the endophytes?
Dr. STROBEL: Why not?
CHADWICK: Gary Strobel's paper on mycodiesel will be published tomorrow in the journal Microbiology. So now, the secret is out, and we'll see what happens next.
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