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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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RE: LS9? GM will sue...
By Targon on 8/13/2008 8:44:12 AM , Rating: 2
There are many people out there that take this sort of attitude, including the RIAA. You MUST stop the advancement of technology, just because change is a bad thing and people may use it for illegal/immoral purposes.

The idea that just because something can be used for illegal purposes does not mean that something WILL be used in that way. This is why guns, VCRs/DVRs, CD/DVD recorders, and so on are legal. Trying to say that by adding a new "cheap" way to provide an alternative to current supplies of fuel that it will lead to all sorts of negative things is wrong on many levels.

Every human on the planet has the potential for violent behavior, but that does not mean that every person will act in a violent manner. Just because the potential is there does not mean that it will happen.

If you look at the world, much of the fighting has been over "energy", and the desire to have an unlimited supply. This is why the places with an oil supply are so important to so many people. What happens if these oil supplies are no longer the only source of oil then? What if every country will be able to supply it's own oil? Wouldn't that mean that the need to even deal with the middle east would fade, eliminating the need for war due to oil in that part of the world?

For your other points, I don't fully understand your points. When it comes to AIDS, the problem is a bit more about sociology than about products made by oil. Before the birth control pill, pre-marital sex often lead to unwanted pregnancy. When birth control pills became available, this lead to the whole "free sex" craze of the late 1960s into early 1970s because sexually transmitted diseases just were not in the minds of people. Even then, it took until the late 1970s into the 1980s before sexually transmitted diseases were even thought about by young people. AIDS was the first disease to really scare people enough to change their behavior, so the use of the condom became a lot more popular. And even though things changed here in the USA, in third world countries where birth control is/was not easily accessable, the use of these things has been very low, leading to the AIDS problem being not just a concern, but a true epidemic. It has nothing to do with oil in that case, but about a sociological issue even when birth control is widely available.

Energy by itself is not an "evil" that causes problems, but when supplies are limited, it becomes something that people want, and because others know that it will be in demand may try to control the supply. By removing the limits on energy availability, it reduces one item that others may be envious of. If you are looking for a reason why energy causes fighting, you should look at the root issue, envy. Make something available to everyone in the world at an affordable price(to those who want it), and that eliminates one potential source of violence.

So, you are looking for trouble in the wrong place. At the heart of any problem, you will find that envy is the source of most problems, and this can lead to hostility.

RE: LS9? GM will sue...
By Myg on 8/13/2008 1:59:36 PM , Rating: 2
Was mainly a response to mashers comments of the following:

"Actually, burning hydrocarbons has led to the greatest advances in human health and standard of living mankind has ever seen. It's important to not forget that. "

But yes Targon, your right; it is more of a social issue then a petrolium one. I was hoping to expose a little insight into the side effects of this new fangled "standard of living" he was talking about.

"If you look at the last five years, if you look at what major innovations have occurred in computing technology, every single one of them came from AMD. Not a single innovation came from Intel." -- AMD CEO Hector Ruiz in 2007

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