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Biotech Science

Engineered Stomach Microbe Converts Seaweed Into Ethanol 226

Posted by samzenpus
from the sick-power dept.
PolygamousRanchKid writes "Seaweed may well be an ideal plant to turn into biofuel. It grows in much of the two thirds of the planet that is underwater, so it wouldn't crowd out food crops the way corn for ethanol does. Because it draws its own nutrients and water from the sea, it requires no fertilizer or irrigation. Most importantly for would-be biofuel-makers, it contains no lignin—a strong strand of complex sugars that stiffens plant stalks and poses a big obstacle to turning land-based plants such as switchgrass into biofuel. Researchers at Bio Architecture Lab, Inc., (BAL) and the University of Washington in Seattle have now taken the first step to exploit the natural advantages of seaweed. They have built a microbe capable of digesting it and converting it into ethanol or other chemicals. Synthetic biologist Yasuo Yoshikuni, a co-founder of BAL, and his colleagues took Escherichia coli, a gut bacterium most famous as a food contaminant, and made some genetic modifications that give it the ability to turn the sugars in an edible kelp called kombu into fuel."
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Engineered Stomach Microbe Converts Seaweed Into Ethanol

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  • by haydensdaddy (1719524) on Sunday January 22, 2012 @09:39AM (#38780855)
    So... how long until this microbe gets into the wild and we end up with an ocean of ethanol...?
    • by FrozenFood (2515360) on Sunday January 22, 2012 @09:41AM (#38780867)
      as soon as possible, hopefully.
    • That has a certain Futurama ring to it.

    • Into the wild isn't all that deep, but microbes aren't very bright and I don't think the movie provides any great insights into ethanol production, so I'll go with never.
    • by Sulphur (1548251)

      So... how long until this microbe gets into the wild and we end up with an ocean of ethanol...?

      We would be fuel independent and buying water..

  • mixed feelings (Score:4, Interesting)

    by craftycoder (1851452) on Sunday January 22, 2012 @09:46AM (#38780933)

    For the sake of argument, lets say it works and pretty soon the ocean is all fenced off like Nebraska and each family farmer (multinational corp) has their own little farm (ocean). All this does is push off the problems of over populating a little bit further all the while putting pressure new pressures on the environment. While kelp would capture CO from the atmosphere in equal parts to those exhausted when burnt, I'm sure we are not taking into account the other things it will be removing from the seas. What affect might that have? No one knows. While the Capitalist ethic of "Drive it hard and fix what breaks." is romantic, it is also dangerous and doesn't take into account the people they kill along the way. I think I'd prefer to have a substantive conversation on the population control instead of only looking for more resources to exploit. Eventually Malthus will catch up to us, why not stop running from him and face his challenge. Better now while only 7 billion people will have to suffer rather than 12 billion in 20 or 30 years.

  • by intnsred (199771) on Sunday January 22, 2012 @09:51AM (#38780987) Homepage

    But considering the fact of global warming/climate change and the topic of greenhouse gases, isn't our core problem that we are simply burning too much stuff? With that in mind, is this really going to help?

    Shouldn't our focus be on creating forms of energy that produce energy without burning things?

    • by mpoulton (689851)

      But considering the fact of global warming/climate change and the topic of greenhouse gases, isn't our core problem that we are simply burning too much stuff?

      Not really. Our problem is that we burn stuff that was buried underground for ever and ever, and we dug it up. Burning stuff that just recently grew is just fine. Growing algae (or any plant, for that matter) removes CO2 from the environment and collects the carbon in the plant tissue. Burning it simply releases the same amount of CO2 that was consumed by growing the plant. It's "carbon neutral" in hippie parlance.

      • This is true, but what about the "nutrients" that the kelp captures while it grows and then is removed en masse during the harvest? I find this worrisome. More worrisome though is the constant search for more resources to exploit while the ignoring of the fact that we cannot sustain population growth forever. Why not stop increasing the resource requirements before the inevitable war for resources happens and kills off a few billion people?

        • by adolf (21054)

          More worrisome though is the constant search for more resources to exploit while the ignoring of the fact that we cannot sustain population growth forever. Why not stop increasing the resource requirements before the inevitable war for resources happens and kills off a few billion people?

          Sounds good to me. Who do you want to delete first: Your elders, or your children?

          • by lorenlal (164133)

            I say we just give everyone palm flower crystals and work it out from there.

          • That is the choice I don't want to have to make. I'd prefer we stop creating so many new people. That requires that we raise the likelihood that each child born has a high probably of surviving and thriving though. That means the wealthy we will need to be more generous with the less fortunate. The other option though is that we are stingy, so the less fortunate perceive that the only way to be sure that someone will be there to support them when they are old is to have a ton a children, and that will make

            • by DarkOx (621550)

              Except that Malthus was wrong then and has been proven wrong over and over and over again in the time that has passed.

              Each and every time we have found a away to crash through every imaginary barrier to a growing population anyone has supposed existed. There are booms and busts, and every time there is a bust some people go around thinking the "end is neigh, the great culling is upon us". The next thing that happens is we have a little war, which lowers the population a little bit, gets people focused on

              • You will probably die a happy old man who never saw the reckoning your brand of apathy caused. It will come though not likely in our life time.

                I'm guessing we can agree that the world cannot sustain a trillion people, right? We are already doing all manner of terrible things to sustain our current population (inoculating livestock with antibiotics so they grow faster comes to mind). We will have to get more and more grotesque in our "advances" to keep with the billions of new mouths to feed. At some point,

          • by Tsingi (870990)

            Sounds good to me. Who do you want to delete first: Your elders, or your children?

            AC's

        • by Smidge204 (605297) on Sunday January 22, 2012 @10:39AM (#38781367) Journal

          The nutrients would be left over after processing, since all we're interested in is ethanol final product (containing only carbon, oxygen and hydrogen) all the other minerals, fixed nitrogen, proteins etc. would end up as a slurry with waste water. Dump that back into the ocean over the area you're harvesting as fertilizer. Very little would be lost.

          My biggest concern is the ability to scale this method so it produces a worthwhile fraction of our energy needs and becomes economically viable. Ethanol is a fairly poor choice for motor fuel since it's so volatile and hygroscopic - it spoils quickly. It also has low energy density which is more of an inconvenience (need more to get the same output). I'd be much happier with biodiesel as an end product.
          =Smidge=

          • I know a scientist that is working on a microbe that you can pump into an oil well and after a sufficient period of time you pump out diesel. It's really cool and creates major efficiencies in refining but doesn't deal with the release of fossil carbon at all. I'd like to see a biodiesel solution as well.

            • by hedwards (940851)

              That's like a worst of both worlds solution. You still get all the pollution of drilling and you get known of the benefits from turning the CO2 in the air into new fuel.

    • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Sunday January 22, 2012 @10:08AM (#38781121) Journal
      No. The thing about a carbon cycle is that it's, uh, a cycle. If you take a plant and burn it, then grow another plant that absorbs the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, then you end up with no net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. The problem is that we are mostly burning things like coal and oil that have not been atmospheric carbon for several million years. This is, in theory, the point of carbon offsets - they grow some new plants to absorb the carbon that you release from burning fossil fuels.
      • This is, in theory, the point of carbon offsets - they grow some new plants to absorb the carbon that you release from burning fossil fuels.

        In practice, though, the new plants will be cut down well before the carbon dioxide can be naturally absorbed. I don't expect offsets to work.

    • by Hentes (2461350)

      The point of biofuel is not that it's ecological but that is, unlike fossil fuel, renewable.

      • Fossil fuel is renewable too - just on a rather long time scale. In a few million years (or about next year, according to the global warming crowd), when the earth has warmed up to the point where it is a huge steaming tropical jungle from pole to pole, ferns will again fix fossil fuel and coal seams will be renewed.
    • by limaxray (1292094)
      Why is this modded insightful? This process is no different than an animal eating the seaweed and exhaling CO2. No 'new' carbon made its way into the atmosphere, it is just existing carbon making its way through the carbon cycle. By your logic, we should kill off all animal life on the planet (including ourselves) to stop these horrible horrible acts of combustion.
    • As long as it consumes as much atmospheric CO2 during creation as it produces during burning it doesn't matter, ie. carbon neutral.

    • by TheMeuge (645043)

      But considering the fact of global warming/climate change and the topic of greenhouse gases, isn't our core problem that we are simply burning too much stuff? With that in mind, is this really going to help?

      Shouldn't our focus be on creating forms of energy that produce energy without burning things?

      Your argument is fundamentally flawed, because ultimately, any energy generation will result in rising global temperature. After all, heat is the ultimate byproduct of reducing local entropy in any system.

  • ... in producing fire-breathing sea monsters.

    • ... in producing fire-breathing sea monsters.

      Very drunk fire-breathing sea monsters with bad diarrhea perhaps...

      I'm not all that worried about Cecil the Inebriated Sea Serpent.

  • Seaweed is a key component of the ocean ecosystem, providing a safe environment - and indeed a source of food - for other sea life. Mass harvesting seaweed would impact this broader ecosystem, and in unknown ways. At the least it could hurt fisheries. It might be nice to understand this impact before 'seaweed farmers' go out and clear cut huge swaths of seaweed forests!

    • by biodata (1981610)
      To say nothing of the carbon captured by the seaweed as it grows, and sequestered on the seabed. This sounds like a recipe for making climate change worse faster.
    • by iive (721743) on Sunday January 22, 2012 @12:06PM (#38782173)

      Not long ago I watched a TV program that presented the work of Japanese scientist Izuru Senaha . He have found that seaweed grows optimally at 2% CO2 concentration (72 times the normal concentration in sea water). They use method (developed by Masanori Hiraoka) where the seaweeds are in constant motion to boost their growth.
      He is making experiments by collecting CO2 from local power plants and using it to grow seaweed.

      It would make a lot more sense to have farms for rapid growth than having to collect seaweed from the ocean.

      This method alone could be great for collecting the carbon from the air and making it into solid form (thus reversing the greenhouse effect). But that would not be profitable on its own.

  • Wasn't the sweet crude petroleum formed millions of years ago by decaying seaweed and soft bodied marine creatures? So in a way this enigneered microbe is just accelerating the natural process by about 100 million years.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by flyingfsck (986395)
      No. Oil is not decayed plant matter. Oil is created by archaea bacteria in the earth's crust, from methane and ethane gas that was created when the previous sun went nova. Note that I said 'is created' - an ongoing, but very, very slow process. Coal is decayed plant matter from multiple global wide tropical jungle periods about 100 million years ago.
  • Yet another inefficient solar collector that will save the world from oil dependence. I'm so sure we can scale up production to replace the 160 exajoules of energy provided by oil (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubic_mile_of_oil#Definition_and_energy_equivalents), which is what's currently required each year by industrial civilization.

    Man, I just can't get enough of these "The energy crisis is solved!" stories. I've loved them since I was a kid in the 60s. Funny, how we're still gulping that oil though.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      No worries, I am sure that whining about things not solving the problem will solve the problem.

    • by trout007 (975317)

      And the one thing that we know works is illegal.

    • Man, I just can't get enough of these "The energy crisis is solved!" stories. I've loved them since I was a kid in the 60s. Funny, how we're still gulping that oil though.

      The science in this arena has a more difficult time than in most others as it has an additional hurdle to overcome beyond the science itself: Vested interests.

      What with Big Carbon playing Pope Urban VIII to alternative energy's Galileo, any progress is significant.

      • I call BS. Energy companies don't care what kind of energy they sell. If dead grandmothers turned out to be a significant energy sources, Shell and Exxon would just start buying up graveyards. If renewables produced enough energy to matter, Shell and Exxon would be busy transitioning their assets to it.

  • I figure after I eat those microbes I could get drunk just by eating seaweed. I could just live at the beach .. perfect.

  • it wouldn't crowd out food crops the way corn for ethanol does.

    But seaweed is a food, so yes it would.

    • You're going to plant seaweed in fields, are you? Good luck with that. There's more than one species of seaweed, and the sort we eat is not a major component of the planet's diet like corn is.
  • by Ol Biscuitbarrel (1859702) on Sunday January 22, 2012 @10:49AM (#38781439)

    The WSJ had an article last month on the Cellulosic Ethanol Debacle. [wsj.com] The various approaches just haven't worked at all. Try whatever tabletop approach catches your fancy but in the real world lignin just doesn't scale up to anything approaching meaningful commercial volumes, as of yet anyway. And our tax dollars go towards these attempts, keep in mind.

    People have been fiddling about with these approaches for almost a century too, and making all manner of grandiose claims; I've parsed news clippings from the 1920s promising a coming era of limitless cheap ethanol to replace rock oil. It would take catastrophically high crude oil prices to really spur development here, but chances are we'd also turn to dirtier approaches like coal-to-liquids which are somewhat more profitable and scalable; or simply employ conservation to the point where the price would drop back down anyway. The International Energy Agency had an excellent document on approaches for
    Saving Oil in a Hurry, which may be of interest.

    • Whoops, forgot that link: Saving Oil in a Hurry. [iea.org]

    • by pseudofrog (570061) on Sunday January 22, 2012 @11:30AM (#38781837)
      You said:

      Try whatever tabletop approach catches your fancy but in the real world lignin just doesn't scale up to anything approaching meaningful commercial volumes

      From the summary:

      Most importantly for would-be biofuel-makers, it contains no lignin—a strong strand of complex sugars that stiffens plant stalks and poses a big obstacle to turning land-based plants such as switchgrass into biofuel.

      • Yeah, I thought about that after posting. I used 'lignin' as a blanket statement for any and all methods here. But this has been tried before, as I implied; here's a 1979 news clipping [google.com] about floating kelp being gasified into methane for use as fuel, for instance. (I can't load these Google News archive pieces in Chrome for some reason, btw).

        There have been heaps of schemes for sea-based algae farms growing biofuels, too. Lignin isn't an issue there either. There seems little new in this approach; would

        • There seems little new in this approach; would it be able to compete with good ol' corn based ethanol? There's so much built infrastructure for that already, and massive corporations throwing their weight behind it. >

          But any damn thing can beat corn based ethanol. It takes more than a gallon of gasoline to make a gallon equivalent of corn based ethanol. I think it is a matter of time before the genetic code of the bacteria used to digest cellulose in the guts of termites is cracked. Then lignin would not be an issue at all. There are bacteria that break down cellulose in the mud and the guts of termites. They manage to produce surplus energy to live after spending whatever energy it takes to break it down. So it has a p

  • We'll turn the entire ocean into BOOZE! :)

  • Personally, I rather have a real biologist working on this than a synthetic one.
  • "It grows in much of the two thirds of the planet that is underwater, so it wouldn't crowd out food crops the way corn for ethanol does. "

    There is so much uneducated FUD about biofuel which only goes to show that the best of intentions among environmentalists and world hunger activists can have adverse environmental and social impacts. If use of corn for ethanol was an issue I would expect the vulnerable third world countries to be crying out for the US to sell them corn, but that isn't the case. The thi
  • by PPH (736903) on Sunday January 22, 2012 @12:06PM (#38782177)

    Will this work with aquatic milfoil [wikipedia.org]? Because I know a few places that would be happy to part with theirs.

  • With all the weird, at least from our point of view, products on the Japanese market, how long do you think it will be before there is Kombu Whiskey on the shelves there, considering they would probably have to age it a bit first!

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