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Researchers postdoctoral fellow Harshad Velankar (center), undergraduate student Hailee Rask (left), and Professor David Mullin (right) cook up some butanol using their special bacteria.  (Source: Paula Burch-Celentano / Tulane University)

Clostridium bacteria, shown here in a gorgeous electron micrograph, aren't always friendly, causing tetanus, food poisoning, and botulism.  (Source: Vaccine News Daily)

Pure butanol can be used in regular engines without damaging them, unlike ethanol. It's also more energy-dense than ethanol.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Bacteria digests cellulose to make motor friendly butanol

Those piles of junk advertising fliers and lawn waste could soon be put to good use.  Researchers at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana have discovered [press release] a beneficial new bacteria that can digest plant-derived waste and turn it into a superior biofuel.

The microbe, named TU-103 in honor of the university, was discovered by a Tulane team lead by cell and molecular biology professor David Mullin.  They quite literally dug the bacteria out of excrement; it was discovered from a comprehensive analysis of the hordes of microbes found in the dung of grass-eating animals of New Orleans' Audubon Zoo.

The selected bacteria, a strand of Clostridium, expressed a cellulase capable of breaking down the sturdy sugar polymer that gives plants much of their rigid support.  Exposed to a stew of ground newspapers -- primarily composed of cellulose fibers -- and water, the bacterium was spotted asexually reproducing and producing 
butanol -- a four-carbon alcohol.

Many species of Clostridium are less than friendly causing diseases like botulism and tetanus.  However, this newly discovered species uses its microbial powers for good.

The researchers admit that the new strain is not alone in its ability to produce butanol -- strains of 
E. coli, Clostridium, and even yeast have been genetically engineered to produce it as well.  However, the species is unique in that it is the first Clostridium species that appears to naturally have the ability to "eat" cellulose and "poop" butanol.

Researchers are still trying to compare their results against the other butanol producers, to see how their non-GMO stacks up to the competition.  But in a scene straight out Gattaca, the researchers believe their natural variety may out-perform the purely man-made constructs in the long run.

States Professor Mullin in an MSNBC 
interview, "This stuff has been worked out by natural selection, by nature, not the human mind. [We are] starting with an organism that already does something really efficiently; we don't have to pull in genes from other bacteria and figure out how to get them expressed."

However, the professor admits that the bacteria may receive a bit of genetic enhancement of its own in the near future.  His team is working on identifying the genes responsible for "turning on" the stretch of genes that code for the oxygen-dependent butanol-producing enzyme.  If they can boost expression of the protein, they could take TU-103's already natural-selection-tuned reaction to the next level.

Professor Mullin argues that butanol is a superior fuel to ethanol -- the current most widely produced biofuel -- as butanol can be used in standard gasoline engines.  He comments, "If you drain the gasoline out of your gas tank and replace it with butanol, you can start your engine. If you add ethanol to your fuel tank, no matter how many times you turn the key, it would never turn over; it doesn't have enough energy to run your engine."

Indeed automakers and 
repair shops have claim to have witnessed proof that ethanol is damaging engines.  Of course, despite numerous customer testimonials in support of that hypothesis, lawmakers refuse to believe that ethanol could harm the engine, claiming to have superior knowledge of the issue.  But butanol could lay the issue to rest as it's never been implicated in engine damage in its limited current use.

Tulane University also enjoys a fortunate location for riding the butanol revolution.  In addition to local communities' paper waste, it also has access to bugass -- a cellulose-rich waste byproduct produced when Louisiana's sugar cane crop is juiced.  Professor Mullin says he's son going to pull out a can of bugass and let the biofuel bugs munch on it.

About the only thing that will draw the ire of some is the fact that the researchers have a patent pending 
on fermentation process.  In a sense the team is "patenting" the work of a creature they found in nature.  That said, that creature could make a huge difference in the world's energy needs.





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