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Biotech Power Science

Echeria Coli Co-Opted To Make Gasoline 331

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 russlar ( 1122455 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:28AM (#20224499)
    ...anybody else see the irony?
  • "nefarious E.Coli" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by circletimessquare ( 444983 ) <circletimessquare&gmail,com> on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:34AM (#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:So this is what (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CaptainPatent ( 1087643 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:36AM (#20224615) Journal
    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.
  • by Hoi Polloi ( 522990 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:39AM (#20224669) Journal
    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.
  • by cohomology ( 111648 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:39AM (#20224675)
    Also, Escheria coli is not "nefarious." It is usually
    benign, and makes up a lot of the volume of your gut.
    Bacteria are always present in healthy adults, and the
    common varieties protect you from more dangerous stuff.
  • 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
  • Net energy return (Score:3, Insightful)

    by minerat ( 678240 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:47AM (#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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @10:49AM (#20224823)
    Nothing would happen at all. The modifications made to these bacteria put them at a huge selective disadvantage compared to anything that can utilise nutrients properly; they wouldn't last five minutes in the wild. I *think* bacteria are immune to Roundup anyway; Roundup inhibits amino acid synthesis pathways which are non-issues to things that small and that different in their biochemistry
  • by cdn-programmer ( 468978 ) <terr@nospAM.terralogic.net> on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:02AM (#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?
  • Is there anything (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Vexor ( 947598 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:07AM (#20225029)
    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?
  • by Weaselmancer ( 533834 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:11AM (#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.

  • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:23AM (#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.
  • well (Score:3, Insightful)

    by circletimessquare ( 444983 ) <circletimessquare&gmail,com> on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:40AM (#20225477) Homepage Journal
    your prostate can develop cancer, and kill you. but, because of that, i wouldn't call it my "nefarious prostate". because by and large, a prostate is a good thing

    same with e coli. with all of the bad that certain e coli do considered, 99% of e coli's role in humanity is still best described as an indispensable part of our daily lives. such that, while you can call certain strains of e coli unmitigated evil, e coli itself is most definitely not nefarious
  • Re:So this is what (Score:3, Insightful)

    by IDontAgreeWithYou ( 829067 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:45AM (#20225527)
    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 something through taxes or tariffs ALWAYS has negative side effects and rarely (if ever) solves the "problem" for which it was implemented in the first place. Why is it that the solution for a problem always has to be the most drastic and painful one? Consumer pressure is going to drive the production of more fuel efficient vehicles as the price of oil continues go up naturally (ie outside of US influence). People who want, or more importantly, NEED to drive less efficient vehicles do not need to be punished by their nanny state.
  • by WebCowboy ( 196209 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:48AM (#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 Control Group ( 105494 ) * on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @11:56AM (#20225659) Homepage
    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.
  • 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 which has an immediate and obvious economic cost up front

    again, i am not DOWNPLAYING your concerns, i am merely pointing out that these concerns, which i share, are very hard to address

    so then the question is:

    1. is it easier to convince people, who are essentially lazy and short sighted, from the town drunk up through joe schmoe, up through mayor quimby, all the way up to the president, to consider these more abstract costs

    2. or is it easier to simply give them bioengineered gasoline (without the abstract costs you mention) which is economically cheaper UP FRONT when compared to the form of gasoline that is dug up (which has those very evil, very real, but unfortunately very ABSTRACT costs associated with them)

    in other words, all i am saying is that the energy needed to devote to fighting the ugly side of shortsighted human nature is probably a heck of a lot more energy than the energy needed to develop an algae that makes the economic question a lot easier for shortsighted people to accept

    the ugliness of humanity's shortsightedness is a question you don't really want to address. mainly because it's so depressing, and so thick. i am merely proposing that you sidestep it. i feel the urgency of your concerns, but i think the biotech answer to those concerns is a lot easier to stomach, and a lot easier to implement
  • by aukset ( 889860 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @12:05PM (#20225793) Journal

    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 basically the same issue - we need not just energy but portable energy. Even if it is more expensive and is a net loss, without it we are even more screwed.

    You claim the real question is what is the net return on energy. I claim that that is only one question among many. How about, how does production scale? Can this method, on its own or in combination with other methods, produce enough fuel for our needs? Because if not, the cost or net energy of the process is irrelevant.

  • Re:So this is what (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Xonstantine ( 947614 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @12:10PM (#20225861)
    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 legislate you and everyone else out of their lifestyle and economic choices.
  • Re:So this is what (Score:3, Insightful)

    by cayenne8 ( 626475 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @12:15PM (#20225935) Homepage Journal
    "This kind of technique is not going to fix global warming, it isn't going to reduce emissions, it isn't going to magically lower CO or 03 in the atmosphere that I have to breathe. Sort of in short, it just reduces the effort taken to get the fuel, it doesn't actually make it cleaner."

    While that is not one of my concerns....it has been pointed out in other posts, that the carbon produced this way is already 'above ground'...so therefore, not adding to the to the atmosphere any new carbon from underground such as with drilled oil.

  • by circletimessquare ( 444983 ) <circletimessquare&gmail,com> on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @12:18PM (#20225973) Homepage Journal
    it's a simple product of world history

    the middle east is the meeting point, the center of eurasia and africa, the largest land mass in the world. such that the people living there, since ancient times, have been exposed to more violent inroads from surrounding cultures than any other place on the planet. this has led the evolution of the most violent cultures on the planet. simply out of survival necessity

    the amish, for example, espouse a nonviolent and nonwarring livelihood. well, this has less to do with the superiority of such a peaceful philosophy, and more to do with the fact that the amish can afford to be so peaceful, living as they do in the idyllic peaceful coccoon of lancaster county pennsylvania

    but if you took the amish and dropped them in the middle of kurdistan or somalia or the caucasus mountains you would see one of two things:

    1. the amish taking up ak-47s to survive

    2. the amish disappearing from the face of the earth, taking with them into extinction their peaceful philosophy

    the middle east is indeed the most violent place in the world. it has to be. to survive
  • by maz2331 ( 1104901 ) on Tuesday August 14, 2007 @02:40PM (#20227945)
    Round numbers here... 200,000 acres * 365 days = 73M acres. 73M acres = 114,100 square miles. This would be a square about 337.75 miles to a side. Iowa is 55,869.3 square miles. Nebraska is 76,878 square miles. Kansas is 81,823 square miles Missouri is 68,898 square miles In other words, just in a few Great Plains states we have more than enough land area, much of which is already growing crops. Using the waste stems/leaves etc. from these crops is a LOT of biomass to convert to fuel. Rhode Island is a particularly small state. Compare with say, Texas at 268,601 square miles of area. Really, we need a total area about the size of Texas to feed this thing with enough biomass to totally meet energy needs. It's a big area, but not in relation to the size of the country, and especially not since we have great big swaths of farmland already producing cornstalks and such that can be fed into it. Build lots of these as small-scale plants located on farms, give the farmers the ability to sell the raw fuel produced, and we can probably also eliminate the need for farm subsidies, free the country from foriegn energy sources, and make the greenies happy with a carbon-neutral fuel source.

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