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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 g0at (135364) <ben@NOsPAm.zygoat.ca> on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:30AM (#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 @10:30AM (#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 jonnythan (79727) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:53AM (#20224865) Homepage
    True, but that doesn't matter one bit if the CO2 in the gasoline came from biomass.

    For instance, if they feed the bacteria corn syrup, the carbon that will go into the gasoline comes from the CO2 absorbed by the corn from the atmosphere.

    It's OK to put CO2 into the atmosphere as long as it came from the atmosphere to begin with. That's why ethanol is "cleaner" than gasoline - it's carbon neutral. Compare this with releasing as CO2 the carbon that has been stored in oil and coal reserves for millions of years.
  • 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)
  • 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
  • Re:So this is what (Score:4, Informative)

    by Smidge204 (605297) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:31AM (#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=
  • by Jeff DeMaagd (2015) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:39AM (#20225467) Homepage Journal
    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.
  • Re:So this is what (Score:3, Informative)

    by farmerj (566229) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @12:01PM (#20225723)
    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 would be the miscanthus.

    • It produces a crop each year
    • It usually does not need to be dried, unlike the coppice
    • It required very little additional fertiliser
    • It can be harvested and stored efficiently using current agricultural equitment i.e. mowers and big square balers
  • Re:So this is what (Score:2, Informative)

    by ThePiMan2003 (676665) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @12:16PM (#20225959)
    Actually it kind of has to.

    The only reason our CO emissions are a problem is that we are digging up carbon that has been buried for years, and releasing it into the air.

    Any form of renewable gas (ethonal, weird bacteria, etc) have to get the carbon from SOMEWHERE. In the case of plant based sources it gets it from the air the plants breath and store in the sugar. I would assume that the bacteria are getting it from the same place. Either from the sugar they are fed so they can produce this stuff, or from the air.

    The real question is what are they feeding the bacteria. The energy has to come from somewhere, nothing is free.
  • Re:So this is what (Score:4, Informative)

    by daem0n1x (748565) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @12:42PM (#20226341)

    Everything that extracts carbon from the atmosphere helps reduce global warming. The bacteria don't invent the carbon. They have to get it from somewhere.

    Global warming happens because people are taking huge masses of carbon that's stored for millions years under the ground and release it to the atmosphere.

  • by jmichaelg (148257) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @01:50PM (#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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