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Geek-Up[2.11.2011]: Fuels from Fungi & Medical Probes from Fireflies

February 11, 2011 - 5:34pm

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Bioluminescent signal from firefly luciferase lights up a mouse 30 minutes after injection with PCL-1. Source: Christopher Chang

Bioluminescent signal from firefly luciferase lights up a mouse 30 minutes after injection with PCL-1. Source: Christopher Chang

Scientists at Sandia National Lab, in collaboration with Montana State University Professor Gary Strobel, are working to advance fuels from fungi. More specifically, to modify a class of fungi – endrophytes – to produce biofuels for internal combustion engines.

Why fungi?

Endophytic fungi are naturally designed to grow on cellulose and digest it, forming the hydrocarbons necessary for biofuels as a by-product of their metabolic processes.

To modify the fungi, the Sandia bioscience team is using genetic sequencing to understand how changes in feedstock determine the type and amount of hydrocarbons these fungi can make. Meanwhile, engine combustion researchers Craig Taatjes and John Dec are evaluating these compounds on their ignition chemistry and engine performance.

The team is also working with Professor William Green at MIT to develop an ignition chemistry model that can predict the performance of the classes of compounds produced by the fungus.

Dec explained, “There is a whole new range of potential fuels now with biomass. The new fuels will have to work well with both existing engines and advanced engines. Only then will you be able to sell the fuel at the pump and get your new high-efficiency, low-emissions engine into the marketplace.”

You can learn more about the R&D efforts behind fungi fuels and check out more science news in the DOE Pulse.


At Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, researchers have developed a new medical probe based on firefly luciferin. Luciferase, the enzyme that gives fireflies their glow, has now enabled scientists to track the progression of infectious disease or cancerous tumors in mice without harming them.

Christopher Chang, a chemist at LBNL, noted, “The PCL-1 (Peroxy Caged Luciferin-1) probe enables us to study the chemistry in living animals as cancers and other diseases progress. We can use the probe to look at the same mouse over time to see how therapeutics and other treatments affect its physiology, without having to do biopsies….The PCL-1 probe is small enough to travel through a mouse’s body and its red-shifted luminescent reaction with luciferase allows for deep tissue signal penetration with optical readout.”

Specifically, this bioluminescent probe monitors hydrogen peroxide levels. Hydrogen peroxide plays a critical role in cellular signaling that is essential to the growth, development and physical well-being of humans and other organisms. Yet, over-production of hydrogen peroxide has been linked to the onset and advancement of cancer, diabetes and numerous cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.

Right now, Chang and his team are working to improve the sensitivity of the PCL-1 probe. Read more on how they developed this firefly-inspired tool here >

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