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A microscope image of the genetically modified bacterias shows a number of diesel molecules which it is forming.  (Source: CNN)

Biochemist Stephen del Cardayre is the vice president of research and development at LS9. He holds a vial of his company's prized bacteria. The brown fluid at the top of the vial is diesel that the bacteria excreted, mixed with water.  (Source: CNN)
Genetic engineering yields hope for fossil fuel replacement

DailyTech previously covered startup LS9 Inc.'s efforts to genetically engineer microbes to produce synthetic fuels.  After initial efforts to genetically modify both yeast and bacteria to produce long-chain hydrocarbons, they have since focused their efforts on a particular common bacterium -- E. Coli.

E. Coli is commonly found in feces, and the LS9 researchers have succeeded in a rather ironic goal -- genetically modifying the bacteria to excrete diesel fuel.  After much research and genetic modification, LS9 says it has used a variety of common sugar metabolic pathways to force E. Coli to convert virtually any sugar-containing substance in part to carbon chains virtually indistinguishable with diesel.

The bacteria "poop" out this black gold, while using part of the sugar to fuel their growth and reproduction as well.  The net result is that any carbon source can be turned into synthetic fuel by the economic bacteria. 

Biochemist Stephen del Cardayre, LS9 vice president of research and development, says his company has come a long way.  He states, "We started in my garage two years ago, and we're producing barrels today, so things are moving pretty quickly."

He explains the process of creating the microbes, stating, "So these are bacteria that have been engineered to produce oil.  They started off like regular lab bacteria that didn't produce oil, but we took genes from nature, we engineered them a bit [and] put them into this organism so that we can convert sugar to oil."

While the microbes are currently only producing diesel fuel, they could easily be tuned to produce gasoline or jet fuel according to Mr. Cardayre.  Best of all, the bacteria don't have to use simple sugars such as corn, a major criticism of the ethanol infrastructure.  The increased demand for corn by the ethanol industry is accused of raising food prices.  Instead they can use a variety of "foods" including sugar cane, landscaping waste, wheat straw, and wood chips.    The microbes used are a "friendly" noninfectious type of E. Coli that lack the proteins needed to invade the human body, which some strains of E. Coli are capable of doing.

Robert McCormick, principal engineer at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado remains skeptical of LS9's claims.  He adds, "Scalability is really the critical issue.  If you've got something that you can make work in a test tube, that's good, but you've got to be able to make it work on a very large scale to have an impact on our petroleum imports."

LS9 is not only confident they can scale the technology, but they also believe that their oil will be significant to the oil found in fossil fuel deposits.  Typical oil deposits contain significant amounts of sulfur that get released into the atmosphere, creating acid rain which destroys forests, limestone, marble, and damages lake ecosystems.  It also contains benzene, a carcinogen that can cause cancer even in very small quantities.

The E. Coli produced diesel has none of these unwanted extras, it's just pure black gold.  Unlike ethanol, it can be pumped along existing infrastructure, LS9 is quick to point out.

While they hope to be entering commercial level production in the next couple years, they acknowledge that even if they continue their path of unlikely and rapid success, their technology is not a magical solution to the global energy crisis.  Mr. Cardayre states, "I think that the answer to reducing our petroleum-import problem and reducing the carbon emissions from transportation is really threefold.  It involves replacement fuels like biofuels, it involves using much more efficient vehicles than we use today, and it involves driving less."

He says that LS9's success and continued prospects are only thanks to constant collaboration by a diverse team of experts from many different professions.  He continues, "The fun of the challenge from the science perspective is that you do have farmers and biologists and entomologists, and biochemists and chemical engineers, and process engineers and business people and investors all working to solve this, and it ranges anywhere from a political issue to a technical issue."

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Newsflash: Super Bacteria Wipes Out Continent
By Camikazi on 8/12/2008 5:53:02 PM , Rating: 1
Genetically engineering bacteria just reminds me of all those movies of genetically altered things that end up killing off most of the world =/

RE: Newsflash: Super Bacteria Wipes Out Continent
By Carter642 on 8/12/2008 7:40:10 PM , Rating: 5
Newsflash: People Ignorant of Genetic Engineering Science Shouldn't Make Alarmist Proclamations

Even on the minuscule (We're more likely to be wiped out by a super flu or an asteroid) chance that the bacteria mutated into something harmful you'd have to drink some gasoline to even risk coming into contact and the gasoline would kill you far more quickly.

Besides, first CERN is going to create a black hole and KILL US ALL OMG! PANIC!!!

RE: Newsflash: Super Bacteria Wipes Out Continent
By mindless1 on 8/13/2008 3:15:37 PM , Rating: 2
Indeed, you'd have to be ignorant to think coming into contact with a genetically engineered (anything) would necessarily require drinking gasoline. Does coming into contact with flies require handling a dead animal carcass?

By Carter642 on 8/13/2008 4:15:09 PM , Rating: 2
I meant in the case of this bacteria. Actually the bacteria would likely be removed from the fuel product before shipment and all the apparatus would be sterilized between batches to prevent contamination. As to flies, that's a worthless analogy. E. Coli isn't airborne and I highly doubt that a strain this specialized would be able to survive outside the lab for very long.

I work in genetics and most of the GE bacteria that is used to produce medicine or other chemical products works like this stuff and none of it has escaped and started rampantly infecting the world. We have been using this sort of process for more than 30 years, it's about as safe as any biological process can be.

RE: Newsflash: Super Bacteria Wipes Out Continent
By sc3252 on 8/12/2008 9:35:18 PM , Rating: 2
News flash most E.Coli isn't dangerous, in fact we need it to live. Also those who think it will turn into a super "virus" are ignorant, since anything can turn into a super "virus" so why worry about something as E.coli.

No one should be worried about bacteria that are engineered to do something since most are designed from something harmless. Other then that I wish it was something more environmentally friendly then diesel.

RE: Newsflash: Super Bacteria Wipes Out Continent
By paydirt on 8/13/2008 11:47:34 AM , Rating: 3
OK, what if it doesn't mutate or anything but just gets out in the wild and creates a bunch of diesel all over the place... Welcome to Planet Diesel *cough* *cough* *thud*

By rudolphna on 8/13/2008 8:23:01 PM , Rating: 2
itll be the cuyahoga river all over again, only on a much much larger scale. (for those who dont know, the cuyahoga river in cleveland ohio was once so polluted, that a lit cigarrete set the whole river on fire)

By mindless1 on 8/13/2008 3:22:01 PM , Rating: 2
News Flash - Our environment has somewhat of an equilibrium with all it's naturally occuring elements. When something is engineered to be unique and then introduced to that environment, it can defintely change that environment, both in ways we can and ways we can't so easily forsee.

That anything supposedly could turn into a super virus is a bit irrelevant, or rather an acknowledgement of the very thing you're trying to argue against. Is this E. Coli strain significant? Maybe not but the issues involved with genetically engineering things to effect a substantial change in their behavior will have an impact as that was the whole point and the remaining question is one of whether we can maintain control.

By William Gaatjes on 8/13/2008 5:06:08 AM , Rating: 2
Mutations happen all the time, this is just another mutation in general but provoked by us humans. Besides , 1 of the reasons we live and don't have to worry much about our bodies is because our bodies are covered (internally and externally) with bacteria that actually are a first line of defense against other harmfull bacteria, fungee and even some viruses.
When our immune systems comes to full action(cause it is 24/7 in action to keep the easy burglars out) That line of defense has failed. Just do some research about what is going on in your colon and on your skin. Even in your mouth.

Strictly speaking, we are in a constant war and we have a lot of allies. That's called symbiosis. That war only stops when you are dead. Because then you lose and start to decay and dissolve.

"It's okay. The scenarios aren't that clear. But it's good looking. [Steve Jobs] does good design, and [the iPad] is absolutely a good example of that." -- Bill Gates on the Apple iPad

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