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Leaving on a jet plane...fueled by fungus?

Could a common fungus found in decaying soil, leaves and fruit power aircraft? Scientists from Washington State University think so.

There's a fungus among us, and that might be a very good thing. Professor Birgitte Ahring (right) and Ph.D. candidate Malavika Sinha look at a mutant of Aspergillus carbonarius. Washington State University

Scientists have found a way to turn all sorts of readily available substances into biofuel: water, wood chips, air. Yes, they literally pulled fuel out of thin air. Are these scientists or magicians?

Now, as part of a growing inquiry into greener flying, researchers have turned to a common fungus in the hopes of making a new jet biofuel.

A team from Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., has developed a way to turn a black fungus found in decaying soil, leaves and fruit into the hydrocarbons that make up fuel for aircraft, the school announced Wednesday. While recent tests have yielded promising results for the use of aviation biofuels, they have yet to be widely commercialized.

WSU's process for creating the organic compounds known as hydrocarbons sounds pretty simple. Scientists from the university's Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory fed microscopic fungus 10 different items including oatmeal, switch grass and leftover wheat canes, and the fungus naturally produced the hydrocarbons.

Professor Birgitte Ahring, the leader of the research project, said in a statement that she believes the fungi release the hydrocarbons to protect themselves from invading bacteria.

Past research, including some out of the University of Michigan, has explored the use of fungi in biofuels. The next step for WSU is finding a way to produce larger quantities of hydrocarbons to make the biofuel. For that, the researchers are using mutated Aspergillus fungi that can produce a higher volume of the hydrocarbons. They are also hoping they can genetically modify the mutated strains to make them more efficient "by using gene coding for specific hydrocarbons out of blue green bacteria and algae."

Creating jet fuel hydrocarbons from fungi could potentially scale back part of the complex biofuel-refining process. Ahring said in a statement that the fungus does all the work of a biofuel refinery to produce the hydrocarbons and could even reduce the cost of fuel production, which could lead to a recipe for a jet fuel that's more efficiently made, as well as cheaper.

Of course, if they can produce a cheaper jet fuel for the airline industry in the near future, that doesn't automatically mean the cost of flying will go down. Jet fuel prices plummeted toward the end of 2014 but ticket prices still went up. Let's just hope the airlines don't tack on a fungi feeding fee.

The results of the WSU discovery were published in last month's edition of the journal Fungal Biology.