Hey kids! Grab your scissors and glue! Fun, transformative things to do with bacteria!

July 5, 2012 |

Rainy summer day got you down? How about some breakthroughs with bacterial microbes you might find in the house or yard?

6 Monster Microbial Breakthroughs for Biofuels

You probably heard the old saying about home maintenance. If it doesn’t move and it should, use WD-40. If it moves and it shouldn’t, use duct tape.

Well, add one for biofuels R&D. If you were taught as a kid to spray Lysol on it, it probably is a powerful platform for development.

As we noted, back in January, in “Superfriends“:

“Mom taught you well. When it comes to flies, swat them. See a pool with algae? Shock it.  If you see a termite, call Orkin, and if you see e.coli bacteria (well you wouldn’t, unless you have Superman-like vision, but you get the idea), run screaming into the night. Of course, in biofuels, you don’t avoid any of the above. Soldier flies, algae, termites and e.coli are high-performance, high-value organisms.”

Of all the microbes we know – and, basically, the human body is a boutique hotel for hosting them, with researchers now estimating that for every human cell in a body, there are at least 10 microbial ones – bacteria are proving to be incredibly robust for biofuels development, particularly e.coli, where the toolkits for synthetic biology are well established.

E.coli — eew!

Among the hundreds of strains of e.coli, there’s a rotten apple in the barrel. That’s E. coli O157:H7 , responsible for the 1993 epidemic in California, Washington, Idaho and Nevada that spread to humans from undercooked meat, and there have been outbreaks since.

But the very principle that makes that one strain dangerous to people makes the point about e.coli’s efficacy – basically, it can be programmed to ferment a lot of useful things as a byproduct, too, after eating biomass.

Some bacterial fermentation you really can do at home – there’s even a home science kit for culturing and testing bacteria, here, complete with petri dishes, iodine, nutrients and project instructions. Or you can make a tasty school snack, Bacteria Buddies, as one enterprising Mom did this year (FYI, not really using bacteria).

But the really good work is, of course, happening in the top labs.

In fact, it’s really a pity if the world ends this December, as certain doomsayers have projected using their version of Mayan math, because its been a vintage year for bacteria-based energy R&D.

6 Monster Microbial Breakthroughs for Biofuels

Here are six ‘breakthroughs of the month’ this year that have featured disruptive technological possibilities.

Fermenting ethanol from seaweed

In January, researchers at the Bio Architecture Lab  engineered a strain of E coli to digest the sugars in brown seaweed and produce ethanol. This bacteria, unlike others produced previously, attacks the primary sugar constituent in seaweed, making the process much more efficient. According to Daniel Trunfio, BAL’s CEO, the progress “makes the biomass an economical feedstock for the production of renewable fuels and chemicals.”

More on the story.

Using extremophile bacteria that can tolerate high-temperature reactions

In February, researchers at the Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center, located Caldicellulosiruptor obsidiansis, a naturally occurring bacterium, onsite at Yellowstone, Sure enough, it thrives at extremely high temperatures, breaks down organic material such as sticks and leaves in its natural environment, and scientists hope to transfer this capability to biofuel production tanks.

Now for the bad news. In its natural state, it makes a lot more acetic acid than ethanol. But in a paper featured on the cover of the Journal of Proteome Research, the BESC team conducted a comparative analysis of proteins from C. obsidiansis grown on four different carbon sources, ranging from a simple sugar to more complex substrates such as pure cellulose and finally to switchgrass. The succession of carbon substrates allowed researchers to compare how the organism processes increasingly complex materials.

More on the story.

4000X increase in diesel molecule production rate

In March, JBEI researchers have engineered an E.Coli bacteria to generate significant quantities of methyl ketone compounds from glucose. In subsequent tests, these methyl ketones yielded high cetane numbers (a diesel fuel rating comparable to the octane number for gasoline) making them strong candidates for the production of advanced biofuels.

Harry Beller, a JBEI microbiologist who led this study, said “We’re especially encouraged by our finding that it is possible to increase the methyl ketone titer production of E. coli more than 4,000-fold with a relatively small number of genetic modifications.”

More on the story.

Bacterial breakthrough of the month, April: Isobutanol from bacteria, CO2 and solar electricity

In April, researchers at UCLA produced isobutanol from genetically modified bacteria, carbon dioxide and electricity produced from solar cells. Researchers say the new process could eventually be even more efficient than a plant’s own photosynthesis processes. The team is currently working on how to move up beyond laboratory scale now that the process has been proven feasible.

More on the story.

Diesel from bacteria, CO2 and renewable electricity

In May, a combination of water, renewable electricity, CO2 and an engineered strain of a bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha are the ingredients for diesel fuel, in a technology path being pursued by a team from Lawrence Berkeley Lab, the University of California and Logos Technologies.

Highlighted in the in-house Berkeley Lab online publication this past week, the $3.4M electrofuels program reroutes metabolic pathways in the bacteria, bypassing photosynthesis, to create medium-chain methyl ketones, with cetane numbers similar to those of typical diesel fuel. The team is using electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, and the bacteria use energy from hydrogen to split carbon from CO2, and produce hydrocarbons that float to the waters surface.

More on the story.

Cow rumen bacteria that make cellulosic ethanol

Last month, two University of Wisconsin researchers received a five year award of $750,000 from the U.S Department of Energy. Jennifer Reed works on the conversion of lake-based strains of cyanobacteria into biobutanol, while Garret Suen’s research aims to create cellulosic ethanol by using bacteria found in cow rumens.

More on the story.

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