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From Bacteria to Biofuel, Invest in Milking Microbes

What if we could take a soil bacteria and tinker with its genes to create a biofuel much in the same way that a cow produces milk? Well, we can, or at least a team of scientists has figured out how to do it, and the next step is figuring out how to make it happen on a commercial scale.

The common soil bacterium Raistonia eutropha produces complex carbon compounds when stressed, and according to MIT, its scientists have engineered the bacterium’s genes to produce isobutanol, which can be substituted for or blended with gasoline. 

When the bacterium is stressed it stops growing and uses the energy to produce fuel, expelling the fuel rather than storing it up, which means that it scientists can figure out how to do this on a commercial scale it would be less costly than other ways of producing biofuel. Why? Because typically a microorganism producing biofuel is destroyed in the extraction process. This genetically tweaked bacterium simply expels and continues to produce.

Earlier this month, MIT scientist Christopher Brigham detailed the findings, along with his co-author, in the Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology journal. The team is led by professor of biology Anthony Sinskey.

According to Brigham, the bacterium is enters into a carbon-storage mode when its source of essential nutrients (nitrate or phosphate) is restricted. “What it does is take whatever carbon is available, and stores it in the form of a polymer, which is similar in its properties to a lot of petroleum-based plastics.”

So now that the MIT team has succeeded in tinkering with the bacterium’s genes enough to get it to convert carbon into isobutanol, the next step is to figure out how to optimize the process to increase the rate of production and design bioreactors to scale the process to industrial levels.

It’s all about transport, Brigham notes in the journal, and the most significant aspect of this discovery is that “we didn’t have to add a transport system to get [the fuel] out of the cell.”

Another key element of success is the production of isobutanol, as compared with other biofuels. The benefit of isobutanol is that it can be used in cars without modifications, as a direct substitute for gasoline, and in fact, according to scientists, has already been used in race cars.

What are the chances of bringing production to industrial levels? In theory, pretty good. In a press release, MIT quotes Mark Silby, assistant professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, as saying, “This approach has several potential advantages over the production of ethanol from corn. Bacterial systems are scalable, in theory allowing production of large amounts of biofuel in a factory-like environment.”

Furthermore, Silby adds, “This system in particular has the potential to derive carbon from waste products or carbon dioxide, and thus is not competing with the food supply.”

It’s a risky investment while the industrial-scale potential is still unknown, but sooner than later someone will figure out how to make this viable and then it will take the biofuels market by storm. The US Department of Energy has its money on success, as the research is being funded by its Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). And we agree that while the risk is great, the potential is greater.

By. Oilprice.com Analysts





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