Bacteria Now Make Biofuel Like Oil

A UK researcher has altered E. coli bacteria, forcing them to produce hydrocarbons that are chemically the same as commercial grade fuel.


(Scanning electron micrograph of E. coli bacteria)

John Love from the University of Exeter in the UK and colleagues took genes from the camphor tree, soil bacteria and blue-green algae and spliced them into DNA from Escherichia coli bacteria. When the modified E. coli were fed glucose, the enzymes they produced converted the sugar into fatty acids and then turned these into hydrocarbons that were chemically and structurally identical to those found in commercial fuel.

"We are biologically producing the fuel that the oil industry makes and sells," says Love.

The E. coli were fed on glucose made from plants, but Love reckons that if they were to scale-up, they could tweak the genes to produce enzymes that would allow the bacteria to feed on straw or animal manure. This would mean that land wouldn't be needed to grow the feedstock that would otherwise be used for food crops Ė one of the criticisms of biofuels.

Science fiction fans have been waiting patiently for over sixty years for scientists to implement this idea. In his 1950 novel Needle, Hal Clement wrote about culture tanks that would accomplish this feat:

"They call 'em culture tanks. They have bugs -- germs -- growing in them; germs that eat pretty near anything, and produce oil as a waste product. That's the purpose of the whole business. We dump everything that's waste into the tanks, pump the oil off the top, and every so often clean the sludge out of the bottom -- that's a nasty job."
(Read more about Hal Clement's culture tank)

Via New Scientist.

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