How To Turn E. Coli Bacteria Into Fuel Factories

by Mark Hay

December 24, 2014 at 21:25

At some point in your life, Escherichia coli has probably brought you to your knees to pray to the porcelain god. Common bacteria that often live harmlessly in the guts of most animals, a few strains of it can cause anything from food poisoning to death in humans. But, according to news out of Washington University in St. Louis last month, it may also be the key in our quest to find a renewable, environmentally safe fuel source.

Researchers there recently received a government grant to transform the little pests into miniature waste eating, gasoline-producing factories, theoretically capable of replacing our dependence on fossil fuels. And the Missouri-based scholars aren’t the only or the first to explore the prospect. We’ve been dreaming of an E. coli fuel source for the last seven years at least. This decade of research and experimentation has moved this bio-engineered vision of the future from wishful thinking to an increasingly viable and hopefully imminent reality.

Scientists have long dreamed of using microbes, impossibly common and easily sustained organisms, as miniature factories for churning out organic and synthetic materials. It’s basically modern alchemy—down to the transmutation of gold. But the first to float the notion of using E. coli to create a fuel source were probably theprivate researchers at LS9 back in 2007. That year they revealed that they had perfected a process for modifying the bacteria’s genes so that instead of producing fatty acids from their food, they would basically shit out hydrocarbon chains, the core components of any fuel. These molecules could then, they hoped, be transformed into gas, diesel, or even jet fuels in a simpler, cheaper, and more energy-efficient process than the production of corn ethanol and a cleaner, safer procedure than crude oil refining.

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