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Engineers Develop a New Way to harness Biofuel from E.coli

Aug 11, 2016 11:58 AM EDT
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From the toilet to the tank: Biofuels from sewage

A team of researchers from the Washington University in St. Louis has developed a new way to harness the chemical production properties of E.coli bacteria, making the production of certain biofuels from the bacteria more efficient.

The new method, described in a paper published in the journal Metabolic Engineering, involves the development of two different protein pathways capable of chemically affecting the production of biofuel in E.coli.

Previously, researchers have a ha-rd time producing branched-chain fatty acids (BCFA), which are important precursors of freeze-resistant or cold-flow biofuels, because common bacteria like E.coli mostly produce straight-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which have inferior fuel properties.

Because the two compounds were produces by the bacteria at the same time, researchers can only extract about 20 percent BCFA concentrations. Additional chemical processes were also necessary to separate the BCFA from the SCFA and to enrich the BCFA, making the whole process not cost-efficient.

On the other, the new method could boost enable the E.coli bacteria to boost its BCFA production to 80 percent of all fuel products. This is made possible by fixing the so-called bottleneck of the BCFA production line.

"It's a higher quality," said Gayle Bentley, a doctoral student in Zhang's lab, and the lead author of the paper, in a statement. "A lot of people have been making these SCFA fuels, and while that's important work, they don't have the improved qualities like we're generating. The difference is quite significant."

Beside from the biofuels potential of the fatty acids derived from the E.coli bacteria, it can also be used in pharmaceuticals. Fatty acids are beneficial as a nutraceutical, effective as an anti-tumor compound. Furthermore, these compounds are proven to be effective in preventing and treating neonatal necrotizing enterocolitis.

Compounds, such as fatty acids, are very expensive to derive from their original source. However, with the newly developed method of boosting productivity, it can now be economically feasible.

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