Fallen logs on the forest floor make a perfect home for Shiitake mushrooms. These fungi — sold as a delicacy in the produce section of your local supermarket — thrive on the downed wood, turning it into sugars that they use for food.

Now, Agricultural Research Service scientists in California are looking at bringing the gourmet mushrooms' mostly unstudied talent indoors. And, as a first step towards doing that, they've found and copied a Shiitake gene that's key to the mushroom's ability to dissolve wood.

Called Xyn11A, the gene carries the instructions that the mushroom uses to make an enzyme known as xylanase. The researchers want to see if a ramped-up version of the gene could be put to work digesting rice hulls or other harvest leftovers.

If enzymes can do that quickly and efficiently in huge vats, or fermenters, at biorefineries, they could help make ethanol and other products a practical alternative to today's petroleum-based fuels, for example. That's according to Charles C. Lee, an ARS research chemist.