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LS9 and DOE researchers have modified the start-ups biofuel bacteria to produce many new compounds and to also be able to digest cellulose, found in plant waste.  (Source: University of Saskatchewan)

Bacterial or algae based biofuels could one day offer inexpensive fuel for land, air, and sea transportation needs -- no batteries or fuel cells required.  (Source: Dupont)
DOE has paired with LS9 to tweak and improve the company's genetic engineered design

The bacteria Escherichia coli is a very well studied organism and an ideal starting point for genetic engineering a microorganism to accomplish something useful.  Unsurprisingly, San Francisco, California-based biofuel startup LS9 chose the microorganism as the starting point for their biofuel push.  The E. Coli microbe, commonly found in feces, was modified by the startup to contain new enzymatic pathways that converted part of the microbe's sugary diet into hydrocarbon chains (biodiesel), which were then excreted.

Now the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute has paired with LS9 to tweak the microbe and further improve and validate the company's approach.  Despite the enormous potential, the technology is still in its nascent stages.  Describes Eric Steen, a researcher with JBEI’s Fuels Synthesis Division states, "There is still much more research to do before this process becomes commercially feasible."

To help improve the bacteria's prospects, the JBEI researchers -- Jay Keasling, the Chief Executive Officer for JBEI; Mr. Steen; Yisheng Kang; and Gregory Bokinsky -- threw their genetic toolkit at the bacteria, adding a host of novel pathways to produce additional structurally tailored fatty esters (biodiesel), alcohols and waxes directly from glucose.

With a greater array of products secured, the researchers next focused on converting sugars other than glucose.  To accomplish this the researchers added hemicellulases, special enzymes that digest the tough cellulose polysaccharides that typically go to waste. 

Writes Steen, "Engineering E. coli to produce hemicellulases enables the microbes to produce fuels directly from the biomass of plants that are not used as food for humans or feed for animals. Currently, biochemical processing of cellulosic biomass requires costly enzymes for sugar liberation. By giving the E. coli the capacity to ferment both cellulose and hemicellulose without the addition of expensive enzymes, we can improve the economics of cellulosic biofuels."

The results were published in the January 28, 2010 edition of the prestigious Nature journal.

Continuing ahead the researchers see much work to be done.  Foremost among the objectives are maximizing the speed and efficiency at which the microbes process the biofuels.

Some will certain question whether it's worth it for the government and private sector to be pouring so much money into funding biofuels research.  However, they must consider that biologically produced biofuels are unarguably one of the strongest and most promising cornerstones of energy research.  After all, the modern global industrial economy was built on the backbone of naturally fixed solar energy in the form of hydrocarbons (oil, coal, and natural gas), and being able to replenish these stocks in a cheap carbon neutral manner could solve mankind's energy problems in the short term -- and that could be enormously lucrative and beneficial.

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By DaveLessnau on 1/28/2010 1:25:53 PM , Rating: 2
No, I'm not wearing my tin-foil hat. I'm just bringing this up out of curiosity:

I assume there are genetic controls built into these things to keep them from spreading in the wild. I'd hate for a cellulose eating critter to get loose and eat all the wood in our houses, trees in the forests, crops in the ground (depending on what cellulose they eat).

RE: Controls?
By porkpie on 1/28/2010 1:51:02 PM , Rating: 2
" I'd hate for a cellulose eating critter to get loose and eat all the wood in our houses, trees in the forests..."

We already have trillions of cellulose-eating critters lose in the wild. One of the most prevalent is termites -- and by themselves, they generate more CO2 than we do.

Bacteria tend to live in a very narrow temperature/humidity/acidity/etc spectrum. That's why 99.99% of the bacteria found in other plants and animals don't cause disease in humans. So I wouldn't worry too much about these things "getting loose". Even if they did, Mother Nature would take care of them on her own.

RE: Controls?
By Sooticus on 1/28/2010 7:30:10 PM , Rating: 2
Its not as big a problem as you'd think. Sure an escaped genetic experiment does pose some unpredicatable risks. just look at starlink corn...

The main point these people push is that the bacteria is producing a high energy waste - that means they are very inefficient as far as an organism is concerned and will be outbred by any natrually occuring bacteria.

The other bonus of a bacteria is that I dont think it can cross breed like a plant or animal can..

RE: Controls?
By VaultDweller on 1/28/2010 2:40:32 PM , Rating: 2
Don't worry, that's why they're building in the lysine contingency. It's a fool-proof plan! Also, they're breeding raptors to hunt down and kill any escaping bacteria.

RE: Controls?
By sonoran on 1/28/2010 2:49:18 PM , Rating: 2
My question is could these survive in the human gastrointestinal system, like regular E Coli? I'm thinking having a bunch of hydrocarbons excreted into your gut wouldn't be a good thing.

RE: Controls?
By JediJeb on 1/28/2010 3:49:39 PM , Rating: 2
But then you wouldn't have far to go when you need to fuel up :)

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