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Biotech Power

Start-Up Genetically Modifies a Better Biofuel Bug 124

Posted by samzenpus
from the what-could-go-wrong dept.
Al writes "A tiny cellulose-eating bacterium found a few years ago in the Chesapeake Bay has been genetically modified to help it break down cellulose and convert the results into the sugars needed to make ethanol. Scientists analyzed the organism's genome in 2003 and found that it possessed a combination of enzymes that simultaneously break down the tough cell walls in dead plants and convert the remaining cellulose into sugars. Recently, Zymetis completed its first successful commercial-scale trial using the bug. The company ran the modified microbe through a series of tests in large fermenters and found that it could convert one ton of cellulosic plant fiber into sugar in 72 hours. The microbe's main advantage is its ability to naturally combine two major steps in the ethanol process, which the company says could considerably slash the high costs of producing ethanol from cellulosic biomass like switchgrass, wood chips, and paper pulp. The piece includes a video of the company's CEO discussing the project."
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Start-Up Genetically Modifies a Better Biofuel Bug

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  • Why? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by afidel (530433) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @01:29AM (#27251993)
    Isn't it pretty much a foregone conclusion that cellulose based ethanol makes no sense when compared to algae or Jatropha (or similar oil seed plants that can grow on non-arable land) which can be converted to biodiesel? Even if the yield per acre were similar (they're not) the process sure looks to be much more complicated and the MUCH lower energy density of ethanol means you are going to waste a lot more of the harvested energy in transporting the fuel.
  • Re:Why? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 19, 2009 @01:36AM (#27252025)

    Well, the article says that they're wanting to localize the production to paper mills and other places where there's a lot of organic waste that they can use to produce it. It's a pretty cool concept, and I wonder if we could perhaps locate such facilities adjacent to landfills and the like.

    At least this way you get rid of a lot of solid waste that would otherwise just be taking up space and rotting.

  • by Anenome (1250374) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @02:38AM (#27252237)

    Algae bio-diesel is a hot topic. You convert sunlight, water and waste-products into bio-diesel, and the biggest problem they've had so far is the algae reproducing too much! The approach of using an organism like algae to produce renewable energy is likely to work and be far cheaper than any tech we would have to manufacture for a long, long time. Algae biochemistry is just far more advanced in terms of its micro-mechanical capability than we are, and it is its own factory; reproducing without abandon.

    So what's holding back algae from solving the energy problems of the world?
    - One, it's early in development still, although there are two or three notable research plants in the U.S. and England connected to major universities working on it currently.
    - Two, the key to making it economical is to raise the ratio of bio-diesel produced to biomass of the algae, basically the efficiency of output compared to the inputs.

    Right now they get something like 10-20% efficiency. If they could up that significantly to say 80-90% then it's more economical than even gasoline. Can they do this? They think so:

    They've got a concept which involves pumping human waste into the algae water, along with straight carbon-dioxide atmospheres, and pumping in carbon-dioxide black-smoke through the water, smoke harvested from coal-burning plants (making the Greens even happier) which actually scrubs the air clean(er) as a result. With that they think they can get the efficiency up there. So it actually helps us deal with other environmental problems on the side.

    Now, where the actual tech comes in will be breeding new strains and adding and subtracting genes. Right now they've mainly bred strains the old fashioned way, without any genetic splicing. Once the splicing does occur, and the world's library of genetic techniques and effects can be brought to bear we may have something, perhaps an oil replacement, a true oil replacement. They'll begin dropping in genes, and playing with the best traits of various strains to create a super-algae. And then, it'll be "bye-bye oil."

    But, I'll throw this final monkey wrench in the whole thing: say we did create a breakthrough tech that resulted in oil losing its price advantage, so much that within 5-10 years all gasoline refining could stop and the world could survive on bio-diesel and ethanol, all at cheaper prices than oil allowed - what do you think that would do to the Middle-east?

    I think the Arab countries which rely on oil money for basically everything would realize the jig is up, their income is gonna dry up fast, and many of those countries would go completely ape-shit. They'd probably attack Israel, us too perhaps, before their wealth and power began to fade. Without oil money that region is just the armpit of the world, many regions could be called 4th world countries ;P And without oil money their influence would soon wane, and the ability of radical elements to commit global acts of terror would wane just as quickly.

    So, let's indeed replace oil ASAP with something like algae-produced bio-diesel, or any similar tech that gets us off oil at a cheaper price than oil, and that will not only keep a lot more wealth in the US, it is ultimately the only way to end global terrorism as a major problem and concern in the world.

  • "At least this way you get rid of a lot of solid waste..."

    Yes, but should this be a worry? "Zymetis has genetically modified a rare, cellulose-eating bacterium to break down and convert cellulose into sugars necessary to make ethanol..."

    And: ""It has the ability to break down whole plant material, and it excretes enzymes that break down cellulose,..."

    And: "Hutcheson and his colleagues switched on certain genes to increase the activity of these enzymes, and turned off other genes that controlled inhibitory behaviors of the microbe, such as those that tell it to stop feeding."

    When the bacteria gets loose, will it attack plants everywhere? During evolution, plants selected cellulose because it is structurally strong and can't be destroyed by bacteria.

    Technology Review seems to me to be an advertising, public relations site. It doesn't seem to explore the obvious issues.
  • by SonOfFlubber (14544) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @03:49AM (#27252527)

    ...Because you can't handle the truth, that's why! (Jack Nicolson mode off)

    (Seriously) Biodiesel is an ester, which means it has a lipid (oily) part and an alcohol part. The algae or jatropha supply the lipid, the alcohol is still required.

    Ask anyone who has made their own biodiesel - although they use old french-fry oil, they are also mixing it with methanol (if you want to do the reaction at room temp, the ethanol reaction requires heat) and lye.

  • by r00t (33219) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @05:11AM (#27252929) Journal

    Algae growth requires lots of sun. Libya is all about sun. Saudi Arabia is nearly the same. In fact, the whole region is pretty much sun, sun, sun, wonderful sun!

    sun, sun, sun, sun, sun, sun, sun, sun, sun, sandstorms, and sun

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 19, 2009 @05:45AM (#27253075)

    to the wild ? what happens if they prove too successful in the wild ?

    Only rich people will be able to stay sober, as tap water is replaced by ethanol.

  • by DamienRBlack (1165691) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @10:09AM (#27255187)

    It is possible that you have a point. It is possible that the decrease in oil flow will lead to destabilization in the Middle East. That isn't really my concern though. My concern is the tone you choose to set. In general, your Arab sentiment can be boiled down to: the enemy will act in ways we wouldn't expect ourselves to act, fear them. Are you worried that the U.S.'s economic decline may cause us to lash out at an Arab country as we have a history of doing? No, you aren't. Your willingness to assume that other people are going to act in unreasoned ways is what causes most of the misunderstanding in history.

    These countries have know for quite a while that their oil reserves are going to run out. I don't see why this would catch them by surprise.

    In any case, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I apologize if I am overly emotionally invested but I do really hate how after coming so far in defeating the discrimination of African-Americans, it seems to be largely acceptable today to be racist against Arabs. No insult intended, but your original comments do seem to represent some of the anti-Arab sentiment floating around. If we want to treat Arabs like equals, lets stop considering things as "us vs them". Sure, destabilization may lead to an attack on Israel, but instead of simply vilifying Iran for this and treating them like the enemy, lets try to understand their point of view. Lets acknowledge the wrongs happening in Palestine, lets treat everyone fairly, and them maybe these countries won't feel like they have to treat us like enemies. Unrealistically hopeful? Probably, but I think attempting to empathize with their position is a start.

    Fact checks:

    Saudi Arabia has a surplus
    Oil is only about 40% of the GDP of both Iran and Saudi Arabia
    Iran has a good manufacturing industry
    Saudi Arabia is building six economic cities (by 2020) to diversify their economy

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