South Korean scientists use E. coli to make gasoline
Escherichia coli can cause serious food poisoning, but Korean scientists have come up with a better use for the sometimes-deadly bacteria: producing gasoline.
Using genetically modified E. coli to generate biofuel is not new. U.K. scientists said in April that they have developed a process under which the bacteria turn biomass into oil that is almost identical to conventional diesel, a development that mirrored similar research by U.S. biotechnology firm LS9 conducted in 2010.
But the breakthrough this time is different because the reprogrammed E. coli can produce gasoline, which is more expensive than diesel if the biofuel becomes commercially viable, according to Professor Lee Sang-yup at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). His team’s study was published in the international science journal Nature on September 30.
“The significance of this breakthrough is that you don’t have to go through another process to crack the oil created by E. coli to produce gasoline. We have succeeded in converting glucose or waste biomass directly into gasoline,” Lee said.
“The gasoline we’re generating could be used in your car. It has identical composition and chemical properties to conventional petrol.”
When the modified E. coli were fed glucose found in plants or other non-food crops, the enzymes they produced converted the sugar into fatty acids and then turned these into hydrocarbons that were chemically and structurally identical to those found in commercial fuel, Lee said.
The days of bacteria-powered cars, however, are still far off. For now, Lee’s KAIST lab is creating only a few drops of the fuel per hour, making just 580 milligrams of gasoline from one liter of glucose culture.
“Our next goal is to produce three grams of gasoline per liter per hour and then raise it to 10 or even 20 grams and then it will be competitive,” Lee said. “That’s a long way to go, for sure,” adding that, “We may come up with some good ideas that work tomorrow. Who knows?”
While biofuels are considered to be a greener alternative to fossil fuels, there’s the argument against using them because they may divert crops to energy generation, pushing up food prices.
Lee defends their use.
“I know there’s the food-versus-fuel controversy. But I don’t buy that argument. There are tons of biomass which are being wasted on earth. There is a lot of biomass we can smartly use. Smart use is the key here. And then you can generate energy without harming the food chain or the environment,” he said.
(October 2, 2013)