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E. Coli Bacteria Used to Create Gasoline

Sep 30, 2013 11:05 AM EDT
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(Photo : Mattosaurus/ Wikicommons)

The E. coli bacteria is most commonly known as a food contaminant, but the latest developments from a Korean research team may pave the road to a new understanding of the bacteria: they successfully transformed it into gasoline.

A primary component of conventional gasoline are hydrocarbons called alkanes, which are formed by a chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The length of the molecular chain plays into whether the fuel is gasoline, which has a shorter chain, or diesel, which is made of a longer molecular chain of alkanes.

Previous metabolic engineering efforts have seen E. coli turn into a diesel-like fuel, but before now there has not been a successful production of short-chain alkanes that could function as gasoline.

The big breakthrough of the research, according to professor Sang-yup Lee at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, is that for the first time, scientists have bioengineered a workaround to transform the oils produced by the E. coli bacteria directly into gasoline.

"The significance of this breakthrough is that you don't have to go through another process to crack the oil created by E. coli to produce gasoline. We have succeeded in converting glucose or waste biomass directly into gasoline," Lee told The Wall Street Journal's Korea Real Time blog on Monday.

Lee's team took modified E. coli and fed it glucose, which caused the bacteria to produce enzymes that could convert sugar into fatty acids, which were then transformed into alkane hydrocarbons that have the same chemical and structural integrity as those found in regular gasoline.

The research, which is published in the journal Nature, is being hailed as a major breakthrough, although don't expect to be buying E. coli gasoline for your car any time soon. The lab only created 580 milligrams of gas from one liter of the glucose culture.

"Our next goal is to produce three grams of gasoline per liter per hour and then raise it to 10 or even 20 grams and then it will be competitive," Lee told Korea Real Time. "That's a long way to go, for sure."

Lee said his team hopes their work ill serve as a basis for future work in the metabolic engineering of microorganisms to produce fuels from renewable sources.

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