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Wood's 'noble rot' fungus genetically decoded

An international team including Empa researcher Francis Schwarze has sequenced the genome of the common split gill mushroom, Schizophyllum commune, a widely distributed fungus which grows on and decomposes wood. The genome, containing some 13,000 genes, has recently been published in Nature Biotechnology. The new data allows scientists a view of the mushroom's unique enzyme-based digestive apparatus which gives it the ability to attack and degrade wood, causing white rot. It is this ability which Schwarze, together with other colleagues, has exploited to improve the tonal qualities of wood used to make violins.

Fungi are the ideal recycling machines they decompose dead organic material and convert it into nutritious humus, and together with bacteria they are nature's most important detritivores. During the course of their evolution they have developed special digestive enzymes with which they are able to decompose lignin and other complex substances in woody plants, an ability which is almost unique in nature. However, many species of fungi also attack living wood, thereby causing significant economic damage to wood related industries.

That fungi not only cause damage through their ability to decompose certain constituent materials of wood but can actually improve specific properties of wood has already been shown by Empa's Francis Schwarze. In his Stradivarius Project he has used wood-attacking fungi such as the (now genetically decoded) S. commune to improve the tonal qualities of spruce or maple used to make violins. In 2006 Schwarze submitted a patent application covering this process, and last September a biotech violin made with wood treated with fungi was judged superior to a genuine Stradivarius in a blind test.

A real expert at recycling carbohydrates

Schwarze has high hopes for the now completely deciphered genome of "his" fungus. "The genome sequence provides us with essential informati

Contact: Dr. Francis W.M.R. Schwarze
Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research (EMPA)

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