1. Stanford researchers studying how biodiesel can be generated using E. coli as a catalyst have determined the bacteria have what it takes to produce high volumes of the fuel. Now they need to figure out how to tweak its cellular controls in order to kick it into high gear.
“The good news is that the engine that makes fatty acids in E. coli is incredibly powerful,” Khosla said. “It is inherently capable of converting sugar into fuel-like substances at an extraordinary rate. The bad news is this engine is subject to some very tight controls by the cell.”
It turns out that like any high performance engine, the catalytic process in E. coli can only attain peak efficiency when all the controls are tuned just right.
Biodiesel has so far lagged behind ethanol as a means of cutting fossil fuel use in vehicles because ethanol is easier and cheaper to make. But biodiesel has a higher energy density and lower water solubility than ethanol, which offer significant advantages.
“It is closer in chemical properties to a barrel of oil from Saudi Arabia than any other biologically derived fuel,” Khosla said. Thus it could easily be blended into diesel and gasoline, or used alone as a bona fide transportation fuel.
If researchers can figure out how to manipulate the cellular means of production in E. coli, biodiesel could be made cheaply enough that the little engine of E. coli could end up powering a lot of larger engines at far less cost to the environment than with fossil fuels.
Microbes will be the (human) food- and fuel-makers of the future, if J. Craig Venter has his way. The man responsible for one of the original sequences of the human genome as well as the team that brought you the first living cell running on human-made DNA now hopes to harness algae to make everything humanity needs. All it takes is a little genomic engineering.
Given algae’s multibillion-year track record with photosynthesis and genetic experimentation Agradis’s purpose is to turn that genetic cornucopia into improvements in agricultural crops, whether corn or canola—as well as use algae as a model for testing various new genetic combinations. A similar partnership between Monsanto and algae company Sapphire Energy will “use our algae platform that we developed to mine for genes that can transfer into their core agricultural products,” explained Tim Zenk, Sapphire’s vice president for corporate affairs in a prior interview with Scientific American. “When you do genetic screening in algae, you get hundreds of millions of traits in the screen and that accelerates the chances of finding something that can be transferred.”
If that’s not enough, Venter sees a role for synthetic biology in food beyond crops and livestock—specifically the growing hunger for meat around the world. “It takes 10 kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of beef, 15 liters of water to get one kilogram of beef, and those cows produce a lot of methane,” another potent greenhouse gas, Venter observed. “Why not get rid of the cows?” The replacement: meat grown in a test tube from microbes thanks to synthetic biology.
…look at the potential output from algae, and it’s ten to one hundred times better than the best agricultural system.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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