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Will genetically engineer bacteria for Biofuel


This is pretty much how biofuel technology is being funded right now…

Utter the word biofuel in the wrong circles and someone is likely to be stabbed. Let’s just say that the topic can be polarizing, but for good reason. Biofuel offers a [potentially] carbon neutral and sustainable way to wean ourselves off our oil addiction. At the same time, the hurdles in the cost of production coupled with the technological problems have all but stalled the biofuel fantasy [can you see why someone may get stabbed yet?].

Well there is good news, while we are waiting for our solar roadways and other [much better] alternatives to just a carbon neutral solution, we can at the very least, move away from oil. This all thanks to a new breakthrough that will allow a carbon neutral biofuel to be produced cheaply.

For those of you who aren’t following the latest in biofuels, one of the larger problems has been pre-treating the biomass [a fancy way of saying any type of non-food plant that can be used for biofuel]. Pre-treating is the step of breaking down plant cell walls before fermentation into ethanol. This pre-treatment step has long been the economic bottleneck hindering fuel production from lignocellulosic biomass feedstocks.

Thanks to Janet Westpheling and her team of researchers, there is no need to pre-treat the biomass. They have succeeded in genetically engineering the organism [C. bescii] to deconstruct un-pretreated plant biomass. In other words they have managed to engineer an organism that will break down plant biomass without any treatment. Making it cheaper and faster to produce biofuel.

“Now, without any pretreatment, we can simply take switchgrass, grind it up, add a low-cost, minimal salts medium and get ethanol out the other end,” Westpheling said. “This is the first step toward an industrial process that is economically feasible.”

For those of you who didn’t click the link [why didn’t you?] Caldicellulosiruptor bacteria have been isolated around the world—they are found in extreme places like a hot spring in Russia or Yellowstone National Park. So why C. bescii? Well different microbes in nature demonstrate prized capabilities in chemistry and biology, unfortunately developing the genetic systems to use them has been the most significant challenge.

Systems biology has allowed the engineering of artificial pathways into organisms that allow them to do things they normally would not be able to do. That is exactly how the team managed to get C. bescii to perform this feat. However,t was far from easy,  it took the team nearly two and a half years to accomplish this.

The best part is that ethanol is just one of the products the bacterium can be taught to produce. Others include butanol and isobutanol [transportation fuels comparable to ethanol], as well as other fuels and chemicals—using biomass as an alternative to petroleum.

Oil may make plastics possible, but with this technology biomass may now make plastics not only possible, but more eco friendly. This could also provide a pathway to harder to produce fuels, such as jet biofuels. Which would mean, while the rest of us are driving electric cars, we could still manage to fly using technology readily available,  at least until someone creates a commercial solar-powered plane.

With a little luck, we could be a carbon neutral world, at least if we really wanted to be. Need more? You can find the full study —here!

Daehwan Chung, Minseok Cha, Adam M. Guss,Janet Westpheling (2014). Direct conversion of plant biomass to ethanol by engineered Caldicellulosiruptor bescii Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences : 10.1073/pnas.1402210111


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