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Biotech Power Science

Echeria Coli Co-Opted To Make Gasoline 331

Posted by Zonk
from the good-first-step-i-guess dept.
Flask_Man writes "Technology Review has an article about a small biotech company in the Silicon Valley that has successfully produced renewable gasoline from genetically modified bacteria, including the nefarious E.Coli bacteria. A pilot plant is slated to be constructed in California in 2008, and it is claimed that hundreds of different hydrocarbon molecules are capable of being produced. The modified bacteria make and excrete hydrocarbon molecules that are the length and molecular structure the company desires. From the article: 'To do this, the company is employing tools from the field of synthetic biology to modify the genetic pathways that bacteria, plants, and animals use to make fatty acids, one of the main ways that organisms store energy. Fatty acids are chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms strung together in a particular arrangement, with a carboxylic acid group made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen attached at one end. Take away the acid, and you're left with a hydrocarbon that can be made into fuel.'" We discussed something similar to this earlier this year.
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Echeria Coli Co-Opted To Make Gasoline

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  • by WillRobinson (159226) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @09:27AM (#20224493) Journal
    About 3500$ a gallon?
    • by utopianfiat (774016) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @09:31AM (#20224557) Journal
      So?! It's better than me giving up driving my SUV to work every day! Those damn communists want me to take the *TRAIN* to work from 20 miles out of town, can you believe them?!
      You do what you have to for your survival, and I'll do what I have to to maintain my pathetic dependence on petrol!
      • by MightyYar (622222)
        Just make the price higher and people will stop buying gas guzzlers. You can either tax the fuel or the cars - doesn't really matter. Or you could just make the roads really small like in Europe. Most people outside of cities in the US parallel park about 4 times in their life - including the driver's exam.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by croddy (659025)

          raising the tax would discourage SUV owners the least. when you're driving around in a $65,000 cadillac escalade, you've already demonstrated you don't have any understanding of cost. charging $4.50 instead of $3.50 a gallon is not likely to affect you either.

          raising fuel taxes is, however, realistically likely to break the bank for folks who are already driving used economy cars because that's all they can afford.

          a more appropriate approach would be to simply regulate the vehicles off the road by passi

          • by MightyYar (622222)
            So tax the trucks instead. I didn't say that it had to be a fuel tax. Make the $65,000 Caddy cost $80,000 - though you have to accept higher prices for sports cars as well since they guzzle just as much fuel. I'd also argue that pricing gas out of people's ability to pay is a GOOD thing - it gets people off of the road - though apparently not the people you want off of the road. It's going to happen anyway if we've really hit peak oil - may as well do it in a controlled manner instead of whenever the market
        • by cayenne8 (626475)
          "Just make the price higher and people will stop buying gas guzzlers. You can either tax the fuel or the cars - doesn't really matter."

          But why would we have to do that? If we can find ways like the e coli methods in the article to make gasoline which is renewable....and gets the US off the ME 'teet'...why do we have to worry about gas guzzlers? I'm not a fan of SUV's myself, but, I do like fast cars with powerful engines. I'd be looking forward to more fun cars coming back on the market.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Yes, you're right, it doesn't really matter. That would have absolutely no effect whatsoever on any other sector of the economy. For example, in the U.S. there is a tariff on imported sugar. This was done to protect the American sugar industry. Guess what, candy and soda production has steadily been moving to Canada and Mexico for the cheaper sugar, taking all those American jobs with them and reducing the business of the American sugar producers anyway. The point is, artificially altering the price of some
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Xonstantine (947614)
            What a novel concept. Let the market and people decide individually. Assuming peak oil is a near term reality, market forces will make people adjust their transportation habits accordingly without any intervention on the part of government or the nanny state, which, as you aptly pointed out, usually makes things worse rather than better. The anti-SUV crusaders are the moralizing prohibitionists of the era. They view SUVs as profligate waste, and not content to merely express their opinion, they want to
    • by Hoi Polloi (522990) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @09:32AM (#20224565) Journal
      It would still be cheaper than milk.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Well, if you RTFA and saw this:

      Del Cardayre estimates that cellulosic biomass could produce about 2,000 gallons of renewable petroleum per acre.

      or this:

      Producing hydrocarbon fuels is more efficient than producing ethanol, del Cardayre adds, because the former packs about 30 percent more energy per gallon. And it takes less energy to produce, too. The ethanol produced by yeast needs to be distilled to remove the water, so ethanol production requires 65 percent more energy than hydrocarbon production does.

      you may realize that after everything is up and running the price would actually be better than ethanol because it doesn't need to be processed.

      • Re:So this is what (Score:4, Informative)

        by Smidge204 (605297) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:31AM (#20225347) Journal
        2000 galons of fuel per acre is useless without a time frame.

        1 gallon of gasoline is equivalent to 33.53 kWh [nafa.org]. 2000 gallons is 67,060 kWh of energy.

        100 watts of sunlight per square foot times 43,560 sq.ft. per acre gives 4,356,000 watts per acre, or 4,365 kW per hour.So every 15 hours of peak sunlight conditions the energy equivalent of 2000 gallons of gasoline hits the ground. That's about three sunny days worth.

        Killing off a large portion of that due to various inefficiencies... a 5% overall efficiency and you get 2000 gallons per acre year. That's not too bad, and is better than most vegitable oil yields for any crop I can think of by a factor of almost 2. (Algae not included)

        Offhand this seems like a reasonable solution. Combine with other technologies and I can see us eventually replacing conventional petrolium fuels... someone check my math!
        =Smidge=
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by farmerj (566229)
          Yields in agriculture are nearly always measured on a yearly basis as that's normally the production period. The yearly part is normally taken for granted

          In cases where the crop takes multiple years to mature or is a perennial (this is the case for most of the crops which could be efficiently used to produce cellulose like miscanthus [wikipedia.org] and short rotation coppice [wikipedia.org]) it is usually given as the average yield over the expected lifetime of the crop.

          Between miscanthus and sort rotation coppice my personal choice

      • Re:So this is what (Score:4, Interesting)

        by TheRaven64 (641858) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:51AM (#20226479) Journal
        Some random maths:

        The US uses roughly 20 million barrels of oil per day.

        A refinery produces roughly 20 gallons of gasoline per barrel, giving 400 million gallons of gasoline per day.

        Per year, this works out at 146 billion gallons.

        At 2,000 gallons per acre (presumably per annum), you would need 73 million acres of land to meet these needs.

        According to the CIA Factbook, the USA has an area of 9,826,630 square kilometres, which works out to 2428213150 acres.

        In order to meet the current needs of the USA, 3% of the landmass would have to be dedicated to growing fuel crops. I might have missed a significant figure somewhere here, because this seems like a much smaller amount than I would have guessed.

    • Obligatory Mad Max Quote:

      Max: Bullshit!
      Aunty Entity: No. Pig shit.
      Max: What?
      The Collector: Pig shit. The lights, the motors, the vehicles, all run by a high-powered gas called methane. And methane cometh from pig shit.
    • The bacteria-digestion of sugars and cellulosic matter into fatty acids described here is pretty novel, but the conversion into gasoline is actually pretty easy--probably easier than the transesterfication process used to make biodiesel. I imagine that onec the digestion process is perfected the manufacturing cost would be more in the range of $3.50/gal than $3500. Since it costs me the equivalent of US$4/US gallon to buy gasoline right now that makes it cost competitive.
  • by g0at (135364) <{ac.taogyz} {ta} {neb}> on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @09:30AM (#20224523) Homepage Journal
    Oh, right, Zonk is illiterate (the hallmark of a model "editor"). I guess he really means "Escherichia Coli".

    -ben

  • by Control Group (105494) * on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @09:30AM (#20224533) Homepage
    Since the summary doesn't mention it, I'll do a bit of karma-whoring and answer the obvious question: they're using sugar, derived from corn, as a food source for the bacteria. They're aware that this is less than ideal from the total volume and a competing-with-food standpoints. The goal is to replace the use of sugar with cellulosic material.

    That out of the way, this is obviously promising work. After all, there's nothing inherently wrong with burning hydrocarbons as a fuel - if we can get around the problems of increasing atmospheric carbon and the finite supply of said hydrocarbons. Yes, a more efficient solar-to-kinetic/electrical/thermal energy conversion process would be better, but I don't think the development of such a technology will be hindered by making it feasible to extend the use of hydrocarbons (I believe it was Larry Burns who said, "the stone age didn't end because we ran out of stones."). A gap technology that staved off the critical problems of hydrocarbon dependence would give us breathing room to pursue work on other technologies.

    After all, while nothing may focus the mind like the prospect of being hanged in the morning, of the focused mind can't avoid the hanging, it doesn't matter.

    All that being said, what would make a technology like this almost utopian in aspect would be the creation of a feedstock that can be grown on the surface of the ocean. There's (obviously) far more oceanic surface area than arable land area; using that would completely solve the problem of competing with food crops.
    • by mwvdlee (775178)
      But feedstock on the ocean surface might be difficult to harvest :)
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Jasin Natael (14968)

        Hey, if it's all being bioengineered, why not make migratory plants? In the winter, they all swim in to shore to be harvested. Sky's the limit, right? Or perhaps we just engineer them to clump into miles-wide clusters, and throw a hook or two in to tow the whole thing to shore.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by BrokenHalo (565198)

          Hey, if it's all being bioengineered, why not make migratory plants?

          1. Migratory plants are usually algae, and
          2. Yes, we can do that (i.e. tweak algal DNA to produce specific molecules), but...
          3. It's a lot harder to insert useful sequences into the DNA of a eukaryotic (i.e. plant, fungal or animal) cell than it is to do the same with a prokaryotic (bacterial) cell. E. coli tends to be the whipping-boy of molecular biologists since its biochemistry is so well-researched, so it is the obvious choice fo
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Hoi Polloi (522990)
      This would be a good way of using atmospheric carbon instead of fossil carbon that has been sequestered for hundreds of millions of years.

      Ocean farming is an interesting idea. If the bacteria could be in some form where their remains sank to the ocean floor when they died it would also provide a carbon sink mechanism for removing excess CO2.
    • All that being said, what would make a technology like this almost utopian in aspect would be the creation of a feedstock that can be grown on the surface of the ocean. There's (obviously) far more oceanic surface area than arable land area; using that would completely solve the problem of competing with food crops.

      Yeah, they could call it the Exxon Valdez hydrocarbon growth station.
      I can't see any possible problems with producing gasoline in the oceans.
      • by LWATCDR (28044)
        I doubt that they would directly produce gasoline but yes I feel that the making of hydrocarbons in the while could be a very bad thing. What if these did get into the wild and started trashing food fresh water supplies.
        I guess the next step would be to make an algae that could do the same thing.
        As long as they didn't get loose in the environment it could be a good thing. If they did it could be very bad.
    • So, once they have bacteria that can eat celulose, we can spray them on a large forest and turn the whole Amazon river in a stream of petrol.
    • by Bohnanza (523456)
      It would seem to me better if the modified organism was a form of photosynthetic algae instead of bacteria. This would pretty much solve the "feedstock" problem, although I assume there would still be some need for "fertilizer".
    • by russotto (537200) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:23AM (#20225243) Journal

      Since the summary doesn't mention it, I'll do a bit of karma-whoring and answer the obvious question: they're using sugar, derived from corn, as a food source for the bacteria. They're aware that this is less than ideal from the total volume and a competing-with-food standpoints. The goal is to replace the use of sugar with cellulosic material.


      Yeah, so aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play? Efficiently converting cellulose to sugar is one of the big problems in biofuels; converting sugar to fuels is relatively easy. It's nice to get gasoline instead of alcohol, but it doesn't solve the fundamental issues.
    • by WebCowboy (196209) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:48AM (#20225553)
      They're aware that this is less than ideal from the total volume and a competing-with-food standpoints.

      This is a tired argument already. Soybeans are an important feedstock, and have long been used heavily in the production of non-foodstuffs such as plastics, waxes, industrial lubricants, etc. The same thing goes for oilseeds like Canola. Just because it is edible doesn't make it a sin to use it for non-food purposes (it might be considered a good thing, as we know its toxicity is limited). As long as we explore a multitude of energy sources there isn't really a problem with *edible* energy sources (after all, our bodies are mechanisms powered 100 percent by edible energy sources ;-). This all stems from the fallacy that there is a global food shortage--there is no shortage of or threat to capacity to feed the world's population. Sadly, famine today is almost 100 percent due to politics and logistics. Untold volumes of grain have been burned, buried or dumped in the ocean while children starve in Africa in the name of global trade agreements, market manipulation and so forth. It is tragic but agricultural commodity markets are are amongst the least-free, most-manipulated markets out there.

      After all, there's nothing inherently wrong with burning hydrocarbons as a fuel - if we can get around the problems of increasing atmospheric carbon and the finite supply of said hydrocarbons.

      Well, pretty much ANYTHING we grow gets the bulk of its carbon from the atmosphere during photosynthesis so I'd say that problem is gotten around pretty well if we can use plant matter as fuel (well, plant matter that hasn't been trapped underground since dinosaurs roamed the earth anyways).

      Yes, a more efficient solar-to-kinetic/electrical/thermal energy conversion process would be better

      Ultimately even conventional oil is "solar conversion", albeit inefficient since we are releasing soalr energy that was collected, stored and converted underground by natural processes over millions of years. Anyways, what man-made technology we have to collect solar energy totally sucks when compared with the efficiency of photosynthesis. Then there is the question of storage. In much of the world, much of the time, solar energy is most abundant when energy consumption is the lowest, so storage is very important. How do you store solar energy? You can't really store light, and storing heat on a large enough scale is very difficult as well (drill deep into the ground, or store it as huge tanks of hot water, etc). Large-scale storage of kinetic energy is difficult too. Then there is electricity--besides the fact that solar cells are very inefficient the batteries contain environmental toxins and all batteries "leak" to some degree (lose charge).

      If we let mother nature collect the solar energy and help it along (through biotechnology) to convert it to petroleum then we can take advantage of a storage and delivery infrastructure that has been gradually built up over more than a century, and the challenges remain the same (efficient release of the stored energy).

      All that being said, what would make a technology like this almost utopian in aspect would be the creation of a feedstock that can be grown on the surface of the ocean.

      Don't underestimate the ability of humans to mess up the ecosystem. Humans have already messed up out ocean-bound feedstock--that being the fisheries. Wouldn't there be some consequence to growing crap on the surface of the ocean? I'd imagine that might deprive sea life at shallower depths of needed sunlight.

      That said, the ocean definitely has a much less limited capacity to supply our energy needs. There is the capture of kinetic energy using big wave-riding mechanical "snakes" already. There is also a LOT of kelp and plankton that is in and under the water that could be used by this bacterial process. Better to dilute our impact on the ecosystem through the entire volume of the ocean and use multiple means of collecting energy, rather than concentrate it on the surface of the ocean where its effects would be felt more acutely.
    • by eth1 (94901)
      I'm not so sure that this method would result in a net increase in atmospheric carbon. If, as you state, they're aiming to use "cellulosic material" to feed the bacteria, where is that going to come from? Some sort of plant, probably. So the carbon that's released into the atmosphere comes from a plant, which, in turn, got it from the atmosphere. The carbon release is only an issue when it's coming from under the ground and being burned, not when it's just being cycled through.
      • Yes - though I obviously didn't say it clearly enough, that's exactly what I meant. This development is good precisely because it avoids the problem of burning buried petroleum. The carbon released is carbon that was fixed in the short term carbon cycle.

        Insofar as this can be scaled out to real production, it addresses both problems with burning gasoline: the finite supply of petroleum, as well as the introduction of "new" carbon to the atmosphere.
  • by AltGrendel (175092) <ag-slashdot @ e x i t0.us> on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @09:30AM (#20224537) Homepage

    1) High fever

    2) General listlessness.

    3) Urinating gasoline.

  • ... if that strain of genetically fudged bacteria escapes into the wild and undergoes some more unexpected mutations ... And should this thing meet the wild grass that has gained immunity from Round UP by cross fertilization between Roundup-Ready-Corn... That would be quite interesting, to put it mildly.
    • I wouldn't mind if it mutated to break down plastics like polyethylene. Preferably under special conditions, like exposure to UV light or salt water so plastics in storage didn't break down. The millions of water bottles cluttering our land and water alone will be with us for thousands of years.
      • by zentinal (602572)

        I think the parent was envisioning millions of hectares of wild grasses, as flammable as gasoline...

        Grasses that biodegrade plastic, good.

        Gasoline wildfires the size of Kansas, not so good.

      • I wouldn't mind if it mutated to break down plastics like polyethylene. Preferably under special conditions, like exposure to UV light or salt water so plastics in storage didn't break down. The millions of water bottles cluttering our land and water alone will be with us for thousands of years.

        Civilization would probably collapse, if not immediately, then probably after a relatively short time span. Other plastics in the field would break down, UV gets reflected like visible light, is sweat different e
    • by spun (1352)
      Mmmm, genetic fudge...
  • Dupe! (Score:5, Funny)

    by Harmonious Botch (921977) * on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @09:31AM (#20224553) Homepage Journal
    I already produce gas from bacteria. Move on, nothing new here.
  • Curious... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Lumpy (12016) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @09:31AM (#20224555) Homepage
    So how do they get past the fact that e.Coli dies in gasoline? how did they change the bug to have a higher tolerance to their new unnatural excretions?

    If you can keep the bugs alive in the media and the desired product then your output will be far higher than when the bugs end up killing themselves quickly.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by SuperBanana (662181)

      So how do they get past the fact that e.Coli dies in gasoline? how did they change the bug to have a higher tolerance to their new unnatural excretions?

      Science.

    • by Weaselmancer (533834) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:11AM (#20225093)

      Right around 12-14% concentration, which is what wine is.

      Basically, the yeast die out when their own waste product strangles them out of their environment. Sort of like if you put a person in a perfectly airtight plastic bag. They'd live a while until their own co2 strangled them.

      Probably the same with these little gasoline critters. Soon as their waste product reaches a toxic level for them, they croak.

  • "nefarious E.Coli" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by circletimessquare (444983) <circletimessquar ... m minus language> on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @09:34AM (#20224593) Homepage Journal
    actually, every person on the planet has e coli in his or her gut, and in fact, the bacteria is symbiotic with us, not a parasite. that is, without it, we would have trouble digesting, absorbing food, and be vitamin K deficient

    however, we often hear e coli in the news in connection with lethal outbreaks, and this is due to another strain of e coli getting into our guts, usually one or another that produces toxins, including some that shut down the kidneys permanently

    yes, these strains are ugly, but the scientific truth is that e coli is not nefarious, and in fact is almost as vital to us being human as our own cells
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by PJ1216 (1063738) *
      I haven't read the article yet, but maybe they're referring to the dangerous strain, in which case, they'd be correct in stating "nefarious E.Coli." Either way, I applaud any use of the word "nefarious." It sounds really cool.
      • e coli is a biotech workhorse because its a very simple organism that is very easy to modify genetically. the laboratory strain has also lost its ability to live inside people and animals. this lost ability was not done purposefully by scientists, but evolved naturally

        the wild type e coli has a saccharide coat which helps it survive the human and animal immune system. the laboratory strain, not faced with this kind of attack, has lost this ability because its a very expensive to produce, this saccharide. so after many generations and natural mutations, a variety of e coli without a saccharide coating came to dominate in the laboratory, because it could grow faster and outcompete the wild kind with the expensive immune system fighting saccaride coat that also makes it grow slower

        however, bacteria have sex (no, really) and exchange genetic information with other bacteria (in fact, sometimes totally different species). such that anything introduced into e coli in the lab could wind up in wild e coli, and visa versa. antibiotic resistance is one such genetic trick that bacteria freely trade with each other in the wild and evolved in the wild. however, just like the saccharide coat, extra gene tricks incur a production cost that slows reproduction, such that e coli without extra genes always win out in the end (unless they are in hostile environments that require the expensive protective gene to survive)
  • It always annoys me when people say E. Coli is a dangerous bacteria. ONE strand of the bacteria is dangerous, but in fact another strand is needed by humans to live. We have billions of them in our large intestines, processing waste and making vitamin K. If we did not have the e. coli inside us, we would die from dehydration.
  • E. Coli that may be in your digestive system produces GAS!!!!
  • you have to talk about "is it cheaper than digging energy out of the ground"

    of course that is getting more and more expensive, but most schemes for the replacement of gasoline are still orders of nagitude more expensive such that they aren't at the economic break even point on replacing gasoline

    this e coli step is of course a wonderful development, but you have to ask what the cost of the stuff is that the e coli is eating to process into gasoline: not cheaper than digging gas out of the ground

    the ideal would be a creature, probably a bioengineered algae, that produces octane after exposure to sunlight. the e coli is merely a processing step on a larger chain of energy. sich a hypothetical algae would be the whole process in one little cell

    something that takes sunlight and produces it directly into gasoline, that would be the ultimate killer app of our time
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by roman_mir (125474)
      probably a bioengineered algae, that produces octane after exposure to sunlight. - Of-course this is great for producing fuel, but beware, once (not if but when) this kind of thing breaks loose and populates the seas and the oceans with itself by outcompeting the normal algae (the kind that produces Oxygen,) this planet is fucked.
      • extra genes incur extra production costs. such that any cell that produces something it doesn't actually need to survive reproduces more slowly than cells that don't produce that extra whatever-it-is that isn't necessary for survival. and so releasing such an algae inot the wild would do nothing: that algae would be outcompeted and cease to exist

        i don't have to talk about this in the abstract, this is observed in e coli

        e coli is a biotech workhorse because its a very simple organism that is very easy to modify genetically. the laboratory strain of e coli has lost its ability to live inside people and animals. this lost ability was not done purposefully by scientists, but evolved naturally

        the wild type e coli has a saccharide coat which helps it survive the human and animal immune system. the laboratory strain, not faced with this kind of attack, has lost this ability because its very expensive to produce, this saccharide coat. so after many generations and natural mutations, a variety of e coli without a saccharide coating came to dominate in the laboratory, because it could grow faster and outcompete the wild kind with the expensive immune system fighting saccaride coat that also makes it grow slower

        furthermore, bacteria have sex (no, really) and exchange genetic information with other bacteria (in fact, sometimes totally different species). such that anything introduced into e coli in the lab could wind up in wild e coli, and visa versa

        antibiotic resistance is one such genetic trick that bacteria freely trade with each other in the wild and evolved in the wild. however, just like the saccharide coat, extra gene tricks incur a production cost that slows reproduction, such that e coli without extra genes always win out in the end (unless they are in hostile environments that require the expensive protective gene to survive)

        therefore, even if e coli evolved complete resistance to all forms of antibiotic resistance, all you would have to do is wait a few generations, and the resistance would naturally fade in nature. because the resistance is expensive to produce, and mutants lacking the resistance would grow faster and outcompete, if there were no antibiotics around. the e coli would then be vulnerable to antibiotics again (but also would quickly re-evolve resitance upon exposure). only in an environment of constant antibiotic use does e coli have resistance to antibiotics ready and waiting close by. that's why its bad to take antibiotics for each and every little sniffle you get, and why its bad to constantly feed animals antibiotics to grow bigger

        likewise, people who fear biotechnology, about a mutant gene escaping from the lab and taking over the world, are simply ignorant on the actual science. of course, if someone gave e coli or another organism a gene which increased survival abilities in new environments, or did not incur any biological production costs, then yes, that organism would take over the world or colonize new areas. but mother nature is already randomly handing bacteria these genes already in the form of mutations, and in the form of gene transfer with other creatures, so its unlikely humanity can think up and give e coli or another animal some gene that mother nature has not already thought of herself via random mutations, millions of years ago

        everything biotechnologists do to e coli and other organisms today involve adding genes that require extra effort to produce. such that they give the organism with that gene an automatic survival disadvantage
        • if there were no antibiotics around. the e coli would then be vulnerable to antibiotics again (but also would quickly re-evolve resitance upon exposure)

          With a sufficient pool of antibiotics I wonder if a drug rotation could help avoid resistant bacteria? Only use certain drugs in certain years?
          • but my criticism would be that that requires centralized control to implement. the problem is the farmers and the small town pharmacists in far off countries who aren't part of your centralized control

            of course, given the reemergence of drug resistant tuberculosis and staphylococcus on the world stage, then such centralized control becomes a lot easier to implement with military and legal enforcement: people begin to understand what is really at stake. unfortunately, shortsighted as people are, i don't see
        • I'm not disagreeing with your summary, I'm *expanding* it.

          Part of why living organisms lose genes they don't need is because, as you've said, if you have two organisms and one is producing unneeded genes and the other isn't, the one who isn't has a very slight competitive advantage. But a larger factor is that mutations in unneeded genes will have no effect on the organism's survival, but will be likely to make the gene nonfunctional. There are mutations going on all the time, across the whole genome; the
    • by DeadChobi (740395)
      Well it would be cool and all for algae to produce a hydrocarbon using the energy from sunlight, but you're missing the fact that you'd have to input chemicals into the process, making it essentially a light-powered version of the E. Coli. Either that, or there's something unsaid that I'm missing. It seems like you're forgetting conservation of mass.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Jeff DeMaagd (2015)
      you have to talk about "is it cheaper than digging energy out of the ground"

      That's not the only cost, though that's the only one people see. This cycle might be carbon-neutral, for those with greenhouse considerations. Then there's the cost of going to war once a decade or so over energy, the cost in lives and money for such activities, and this also might mean less money to those that would use it to fund terrorist activities.
      • i'm not in any way denigrating your concerns, because i in fact agree with you 100% that they are real costs

        but they aren't economically quantifiable costs. or at least, they aren't economically quantifiable when i go to the gas station and fill up my car, or when exxon buys a tanker of crude from kuwait. the abstract costs from using gas dug up comes in the form of a suicide bomber or a stupid war or hurricane katrina... sometime later

        in other words, your concerns are a lot harder to address than a concern
    • by Digital Vomit (891734) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:43AM (#20225497) Homepage Journal

      but most schemes for the replacement of gasoline are still orders of nagitude more expensive

      Is that a comparison of the different intensities that your wife has to nag you to do something before you actually get up and do it?

  • Net energy return (Score:3, Insightful)

    by minerat (678240) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @09:47AM (#20224787)
    The real question is what is the net return on energy? Is it greater than gasoline in its current state?

    The problem with many alternative hydrocarbon sources is that the amount of energy required as input is to get a gallon of gasoline is greater than the energy required to extract oil and refine it into gasoline today. We're going to be in a severe energy shortage when we run low on oil to extract - we're used to cheap, high density energy in the form of oil and gas. We won't have the excess energy to throw into making gasoline with bacteria unless it's a lesser or equivalent cost to what it is today (and can be scaled up without competing with food for arable land). The only way out of the mess of the pending energy crash is fusion or extreme conservation starting now. All of this talk of replacing gasoline or making it carbon neutral is really beside the point.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by aukset (889860)

      All of this talk of replacing gasoline or making it carbon neutral is really beside the point.

      Thats a pretty silly thing to say. How long do you think society could continue to function without energy for transportation? Our entire economic infrastructure relies heavily on fossil fuels. Transporting goods requires portable energy. Transporting people to and from their place of employment requires portable energy. Its very irresponsible to claim that one issue is greater than the other. They are basicall

    • by rcs1000 (462363) *
      OK. I'm about to begin my energy rant.

      Oil (and its byproducts: kerosene, gasoline, diesel, etc) is one way of converting cheminal potential energy into energy that does actual work. The process of breaking down hydrocarbons creates heat, which through either the internal combusition engine, or turbines, gives us movemement or electrical energy.

      Right now, and indeed for the past 30-odd years, oil has been far from the cheapest way of generating energy. There are next to no oil fired power plants in the world
  • by antifoidulus (807088) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @09:50AM (#20224837) Homepage Journal
    Let me guess, the bacteria eat homeless?
  • Burning gas is burning gas. Does this fuel burn any cleaner in our cars than the gas made from oil we pull out of the ground? I'm a bit of a treehugger but frankly while I'm concerned about the economic impacts, I'm more concerned about the environmental impacts, personally. Saving $1000 on fuel a year vs having a biosphere where the human race can continue to exist... well I lean just a wee bit to the latter.
    • Yes. It releases carbon into the atmosphere that was fixed from the atmosphere in the near term. This solves the biggest current problem with burning petroleum, that it's re-introducing carbon to the atmosphere that hasn't been there for millions of years.

      The other pollutants that result from gas-burning engines are manageable. Not ignorable, certainly, but there are known technologies to mitigate them to a great extent.
  • by cdn-programmer (468978) <terr@terraloLAPL ... t minus math_god> on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:02AM (#20224961)
    It accomplishes little to have the critter if we have little to feed it.

    One ton of dry organic matter is equivalent to 2 barrels of oil on an energy basis if one can convert it for free. This is the cellulose to fuel pathway.... cellulose and pentosans and liganans. T. verdii which is the fungus that brings us stone washed blue jeans is cited as a candidate for cellulostic ethanol but T. verdii is a cellulose digester. Other fungus digest the pentosans and lignans as well - fungus such as P. ostrates and it also will live in liquid culture.

    Now the issue with the bacteria is the food supply. Are they to digest woody plant materials? Are they to digest a fungus which digests woody plant materials. Is there some other food source being proposed?

    Another fact is that if 100% of the USA corn crop were to be converted to ethanol - then this would supply USA liquid fuel needs for about 2 weeks. Any bushel of corn converted to ethanol will come out of someone's mouth. It may be a pigs mouth or it may be a mouth in the 3rd world - but someone has to give up their food so that we can feed a car.

    Personally I think bio-fuels have a bright future. However I'm not convinced these guys are on the right track. Alga can produce bio-diesel from sunlight. Here we know the energy source. In the case of e-coli and other bacteria the energy source is sugar which leaves us with exactly the same issues of ethanol... namely: there isn't enough corn and other grains around to make much of a difference even if we can perfect the technology to convert it into a fuel for almost free.

    However if we can convert the cellulose, pentosans and lignans then maybe because there are a lot of herbacious plant wastes kicking around. If so - then one tonne of dry plant matter will convert to about 2 barrels of oil. If a barrel of oil is worth $75 bux then one has $150 bux per tonne in the budget to obtain and convert the plant matter.

    Something to consider is that normally in the case of agriculture this material is returned to the soil where it contributes to the organic matter that creates a high quality soil. If this material is carted off to a fuel plant then what happens to the quality of the soil?
  • Great... (Score:3, Funny)

    by kiick (102190) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:03AM (#20224981)
    Germs that make gasoline.

    So soon I'll be able to contract a flesh-eating, anti-biotic resistant, EXPLOSIVE infection.

    Just great. While you're at it how about a pill that turns body fat into C4?

    --
    I for one, welcome our explosive bacterial overlords.
  • Is there anything (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Vexor (947598)
    that e-coli can't do? My friends insulin (Type1 Diabetic) is "modified" e-coli. Now we're making gas with it too. What's next?
  • One of the early youtube "hits" was a guy who kept a flame going by supplpying it with farts. Imagine what happens if this brand of Ecoli escapes and gets into the human ecosystem.
  • because of GMO e.coli used to make it. :P
  • Granted, the current political and economic situations cause a problem with the supply of gasoline. If it isn't OPEC cutting quotas, it's a war somewhere, or not being able to find fresh oil patches. But the real problem here is that we're slowly (or maybe quickly) destroying our home by burning these fuels. While this is a very interesting technical breakthrough, finding or producing more gasoline isn't the problem. The efforts of those involved would have been better spent finding new ways to produce
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Control Group (105494) *
      Frankly, you're completely wrong.

      There's nothing inherently wrong with burning gasoline. The problems we face from it are:

      a) introducing new carbon to the atmosphere
      b) finite supply of petroleum

      This development, if it turns into a full-scale production technology, solves both those problems.
  • And when they escape they'll change the planet into oil.

    Repent, the "gray-goo" scenario of nanotechnology is at hand.
  • by BobMcD (601576) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:02AM (#20225743)

    Okay, so they can eat corn. That's okay, because I'd expect that we COULD grow a hell of a lot of it were the market to make it worthwhile. But...

    If they'd consume offal, landfill material, non-rec-plastic, nuclear waste, etc, that would be much better. That's essentially what the earth does to make conventional oil, isn't it? Dead plants, animals, etc compressed into peat, into crude? Lets find a useful product to make from all this trash we create!

    Replicate that, and you'd have something interesting. Kinda like this: http://www.mindfully.org/Energy/2003/Anything-Into -Oil1may03.htm [mindfully.org]

    Though, if I recall correctly, I heard that the plant was closed, due to the smell.
  • by jmichaelg (148257) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @12:50PM (#20227175) Journal
    The DOE says we use a little less than 400,000,000 gallons of gas every day. [doe.gov] The article says that if they get their switch grass process running, it'll produce 2,000 gallons/acre. That means we'll need 200,000 acres of switchgrass a day. 200,000 acres is roughly 1/4 the area of Rhode Island. So we need roughly 80 times the area of Rhode Island to produce our current gasoline needs.

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