Can E. coli Save the World?

By Carl Zimmer | January 6, 2009 12:45 pm

2009 may be the year in which synthetic biology finally goes mainstream.

There have been plenty of articles about synthetic biology–reprogramming cells by inserting new genes and tweaking the connections between their own genes–over the past few years. (Here is one of mine.) But apparently most people are not paying attention. In a recent poll, most Americans said they had no clue what synthetic biology is.

Synthetic biology is important in part because it’s a new tool scientists are using to get at some basic questions about how life works. But, as I explained in my book Microcosm, it’s also important because it may open a new chapter in the history of biotechnology. Biologists can reprogram cells to do useful things and make valuable molecules. Now, synthetic biologists are turning their attention to energy. Obama’s pick for Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, has been a big supporter of making fuel through synthetic biology for years now, so I would expect that he’ll continue to champion it in his new post.

So now it’s high time to take synthetic biology seriously. What would happen, for example, if the United States got most of its gasoline from E. coli instead of a hole in the ground? Would that be good for the environment? Proponents of synthetic biology say yes, but what’s their evidence? After all, E. coli eats sugar, and sugar doesn’t come from thin air.

I take a look at these questions in a new piece I’ve written for Yale Environment 360. Check it out.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Microcosm: The Book

Comments (6)

  1. Thank you Mr. Zimmer for writing a serious piece about synthetic biology. Given all the mainstream press about the controversy surrounding ‘biohackers’ and how synthetic biology enables them, it is a welcome breath of fresh air to see that someone is taking the SCIENCE of synthetic biology serious. On behalf of a scientist trying to move synthetic biology forward, I sincerely thank you.

  2. jim

    check out saphire energy and who are the venture capital companies backing them.

  3. Malcolm

    You say: “What would happen, for example, if the United States got most of its gasoline from E. coli instead of a hole in the ground? Would that be good for the environment? Proponents of synthetic biology say yes, but what’s their evidence? After all, E. coli eats sugar, and sugar doesn’t come from thin air.”

    This *particular strain* of E. coli eats sugar.

    Would it be possible to create a strain that eats the stuff that’s in the ground at the Alberta tar sands and produces diesel or something similar? Could we then get past what I believe is a huge input of energy and a huge output of various pollutants from the production of “oil” from the tar?

    Not as good for the carbon cycle as using a currently-grown crop, but perhaps an improvement on the environmental damage the planet presently suffers from the tar sands operations.

  4. Malcolm’s idea is interesting. What about bacteria that crawl down into the tar sands, consume tar, and releases hydrogen gas, which is captured at the surface? Seems like that would be less destructive than digging it all up. One risk is that they would spread to places where the hydrogen-capture system wasn’t yet in place, so we’d lose all those hydrocarbons.

    The energy content of one gallon of gasoline is 120 MJ (http://bioenergy.ornl.gov/papers/misc/energy_conv.html) so a car that gets 30 miles per gallon consumes 4 MJ per mile. Driving 10 miles a day would consume 40 MJ/day. For comparison, humans need about 10 MJ of food energy per day. Even with 100% efficiency in converting crops to fuel, maintaining our current fuel consumption using biofuels would require a big increase in crop yields or in land devoted to agriculture. The car of the future is a bicycle.

  5. Frank

    Synthetic biology is not necessary for this goal. Evolution has already done better.

    Botryococcus braunii is a pelagic algae that grows in the Indian Ocean. Its various strains make isoprene oligomers with different average molecular weights, mostly centered around n=6. What matters most is that the dry weight of the most prolific strain is OVER 70% HYDROCARBON. This is algae truly is a fuel plant.

    Oil companies could feed these hydrocarbons directly into existing refineries. Electricity generators could directly replace coal with them. Because the hydrocarbons contain no sulfur, nitrogen, metals or ash, most existing pollution abatement and catalyst guard investment could be shut down as unnecessary. This is a really sweet feedstock.

    For more details and some economic background see the website:

    http://alum.mit.edu/news/WhatMatters/Archive/200111/

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »