An improved yield of fuel from bacteria
A news alert from Gizmodo, the Gadget Guide, describes work from Korean researchers on adapting E. coli strains to produce fuel for cars. There have been reports in BIO230 before about this type of potential breakthrough; this bonus article from several semesters ago describes how bacteria can be used to make diesel fuel, and this article presents a first stab at introducing several other bacterial genes into E. coli in order to make it spit out auto fuel. The problem with existing approaches is two-fold. First, the processes are poorly efficient, and do not generate much useful fuel per unit of biomass fed to the bacteria. Second, they tend to start with energetically expensive glucose, as opposed to more complex plant based carbohydrates such as cellulose.
The current study details an attempt to address the first consideration, and the researchers have focused on tweaking existing strains of E. coli to produce measurable levels of short chain hydrocarbons. Their bio reactors enable the bacteria to produce up to a half gram of fuel per liter of glucose liquid media; not a lot of gas, but the results do not indicate how much of the glucose was consumed from the media in the process of making the hydrocarbon fuel. The most important finding from this study is that the fuel produced by the bacteria appears to be chemically identical to gasoline, whereas previous attempts produced longer chain hydrocarbons which needed to be “cracked” to form gasoline in a manner used in commercial petroleum production. This method may allow fuel production with significantly lowered environmental impacts.