Engineered E. Coli Bacteria Produces Road-Ready Diesel

By Smriti Rao | January 28, 2010 2:50 pm

e-coli-bacteriaMost of us associate the bacteria E. coli with nasty stomach ailments. But a new study published in Nature magazine suggests E. coli can not just turn stomachs, but could potentially turn the wheels of your car, since a genetically engineered strain of the bacteria has produced clean, road-ready biodiesel.

The bacteria can work on any type of biomass, including wood chip, switchgrass, and the plant parts that are left behind after a harvest–all contain cellulose, a structural material that comprises much of a plant’s mass. Study coauthor Jay Keasling and his colleagues report engineering E. coli bacteria to synthesize and excrete the enzyme hemicellulase, which breaks down cellulose into sugars. The bacteria can then convert those sugars into a variety of chemicals–diesel fuel among them. The final products are excreted by the bacteria and then float to the top of the fermentation vat before being siphoned off [Technology Review].

E. coli bacteria naturally turn sugars into fatty acids to build their cell membranes; the researchers just tweaked the bacterium’s genetics a bit. The researchers basically amplified and then short-circuited E. coli’s internal machinery for producing large fatty-acid molecules, enabling them to convert precursor molecules directly into fuels and other chemicals…. In all, the authors report more than a dozen genetic modifications [Nature]. Researchers said the process could be refined to produce multiple chemical products ranging from jet fuel to solvents and lubricants [MSNBC]. However, they cautioned that the study was a “proof of concept” rather than a full demonstration of a commercially viable process.

Still, the news of bacteria producing biofuels has been welcomed by biofuel manufacturers who usually use corn and sugarcane to produce ethanol; these processes have raised ethical questions about using food crops for fuel. This new bacterial biofuel technique avoids such problems. The cellulosic biomass doesn’t have to come from plants that are consumed by humans or used in animal feedstocks, so the process doesn’t add undue pressure on global food prices, and since the E. coli can ferment and convert the biomass to biofuel all at once the process could greatly improve the economics of biofuel production [Popular Science].

Study coauthor Keasling is certainly excited about the possibilities. “We’ve got a billion tons of biomass every year that goes unused,” said Jay Keasling…. Theoretically, the fuel produced from biomass could make up for as much as 50 percent of U.S. oil imports. “We want to turn the U.S. Midwest into the new ‘Mideast,'” Keasling said [MSNBC].

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Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Technology
  • Nick

    I’ll go you one better – since e. coli already live in intestines, just implant these into some cow butts. Bacteria share their genes, so all the current bacteria might just pick up these oil making genes. Then, instead of cowpies they’ll just poop diesel!

    On a more serious note, lets hope that these bacteria can’t survive outside of the lab. Otherwise, imagine if they got loose in streams around the country. You thought the Valdez was bad, now imagine every plant that died because of it just generated a bigger spill.

  • Scott

    Wait until this genetically modified Frankengerm gets loose into the environment. Do you think these guys can keep this super-germ from escaping it’s cage?

    40% of the bulk of a human stool is made of coliforms, chiefly E coli. What do think will happen when it colonizes your gut and starts producing diesel fuel?

    Why is it that some people will bristle at the notion of modifying a single gene in a corn plant and then think it’s OK to modify 12 of them in an organism that is essential to the existence of every organism on the planet with a colon?

    Of course, even if they can’t colonize a gut (but it’s very likely they will), they also live in the sludge layer of streams and in a lot of soils.

    This will be an environmental catastrophe, possibly like we’ve never seen before. As the above poster ‘Nick’ pointed out, a positive feedback cycle will propagate because a plant killed by the toxic effect will release more foodstuffs for the Frankengerm to eat, killing more of everything alive in its path.

  • Colin

    Do not be ridiculous, Luddites! The E. Coli has been engineered *away* from being an efficient bacteria – it uses a lot of the energy that other E. Coli would have used for making copies for making diesel. That means that it will do less well in the wild than other strains, and so not last long. It’s not a super-germ, it’s a slave-germ. It’s doing what we want, not what would be best for its own survival.

    Calm the f*** down.

    [Moderator’s note: edited the cuss word.]

  • Kevin

    @Scott – You probably shouldn’t speculate on topics that you are not familiar with. Your arguments are completely reactionary, sensationalist and without basis.

  • ryan

    i hope everyone knows that, that stuff is very close to diseases related to your booty dung and this application will be inhaled by humans and other food we eat either plant or animal. did the FDA approve this? and those that may support you do know the bad guys do read this s#*@. don’t put no ‘fuel on the fire’ so to speak.

  • Scott

    RE #3 and 4: I have undergraduate and graduate degrees in biological sciences. While you may prefer to subjectively use terms like ‘reactionary’ and ‘sensationalist’, my speculation are absolutely not with out basis.

    The speculation I’m guilty is of the category that anticipates and prevents disastrous consequences. The speculation found in #3 is laughably naive (e.g. investigate the structure and function of plasmids) and #4 is simply accusatory while offering nothing of substance in refute.

  • Jurgen Grunberg

    It is hard enough to get these modified E. Coli to survive in the lab. They’d die without a trace in the real world.

    The hysterical alarmists who cringe and whine at every scientific and technological advance should probably be allowed to put themselves out of their own and everyone else’s misery. They belong to the voluntary human extinction movement anyway. Why not start with themselves?

  • Matt T

    Just an idea from Jurrasic Park: can’t you modify the genes of this particular strain of E. Coli so that they are totally dependant on a non-naturally occurring enzyme that other E. Coli produce internally?
    Scott (#2 and 6): thoughts? I mean, wouldn’t this keep the bacteria from being able to establish a foothold in nature?
    (Jurrasic Park spoiler alert) The dinos learned to eat chickens to compensate for their lack of lycopene (if I remember correctly).

  • Mike

    I still hope they come up with reliable, dependable solar, wave and wind energy that will actually work at running all our gadgets, cars, planes and trains as I would like to see us move away from the burning of hydrocarbons all together, regardless of source.

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