Scientists grow fuel from E.coli tummy bug

The engineered E.coli produced a diesel-style fuel, the researchers said. http://www.flickr.com/photos/cdepaz

A diesel-style fuel has been created from a modified version of the Escherichia coli bacteria, the tummy bug that causes Bali belly.

A new study, published in the journal PNAS and conducted by researchers from the University of Exeter and the Shell Technology Centre Thornton in the UK, aimed to produce a fuel that could be used in transport and did not require complicated production process.

By isolating genes from several different bacteria and putting them together in E.coli, the authors were able to produce a bacteria that converted free fatty acids to hydrocarbons.

Under certain conditions, the E.coli bacteria was able to produce a fuel similar to diesel.

“These results demonstrate the ability to design and implement artificial molecular pathways for the production of renewable, industrially relevant fuel molecules,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

Dr Ian O'Hara, Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology and an expert on biofuels said the production of fuels in bacteria, algae or yeasts is becoming increasingly common.

“It’s a modern way of making fuels in organisms. We are talking about industrial biotechnology – using the mechanisms of life to produce fuels for daily use,” he said.

“This technology really is becoming industrialised now. This is technology that is now being commercialised in a number of countries, such as the US and Brazil. In many ways we have always produced biofuels, the fermentation of beer being a classic example, and we are now using modern gene modification techniques to produce modern fuels.”

However, Dr O'Hara said biofuel production faced many challenges.

“The price of raw materials used being one and the challenge of competing against existing industries like the oil industry, which is very competitive,” he said.

“But the technology is advancing very rapidly and we are seeing viable biofuels already.”

Dr Daniel Tan, Senior Lecturer in Agriculture at the University of Sydney and an expert on biofuel production, described the E.coli fuel research as novel.

“This novel method of developing a biofuel from E. coli bacteria will enable us to further develop technologies to process alternative biofuel feedstocks, for example sewer mining, where sewerage waste (grease/oils) can be mined for bioenergy,” he said.

“It will also add to our suite of tools, including supercritical water and pyrolysis, to process raw biomass into a green biocrude.”

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