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Biotech Power

Start-Up Genetically Modifies a Better Biofuel Bug 124

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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  • Re:Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dreampod ( 1093343 ) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @01:45AM (#27252059)
    It wouldn't serve as a primary source of ethanol, at least if sanity has anything to do with the decision making. Instead it would serve as an alternative disposal method for organic waste that rather than costing money to dispose of, it would instead bring in some revenue. Pulp mills in particular generate a fairly large amount of cellulosic waste this would be ideal for.
  • by fractoid ( 1076465 ) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @02:56AM (#27252275) Homepage

    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?

    Then the primary way to get spodloads of money would be "start a successful business, or get lucky/skillful investing on the stock market", instead of being "just happen to have half the world's oil reserves under your ancestral homeland". At least that way people would generally require some degree of rational thought to get stupidly rich. Without their current oil-money-backed funding, militant extremists would have a much harder time forming cells and carrying out attacks.

    As for the algae, I concur. Grey-goo scenarios with nanomachine always make me laugh because our current biosphere is the result of a 'green goo' scenario already. I'd be surprised if it were possible to build nanomachines that substantially outperformed existing biological organisms.

  • Re:Why? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cskrat ( 921721 ) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @03:06AM (#27252315)

    From the article, it sounds like this process would also work on yard waste. In places like Portland, OR, a house with a moderate sized yard could easily produce 30-50 Lbs of grass clippings per week during the 9 month growing season. That would likely be enough to keep a conversion facility busy, especially when combined with waste output from the Camas paper plant.

    This looks to be a promising way of disposing of waste material. Even if the efficiency isn't as great as bio-diesel, as long as it produces a net gain it's a good avenue of research.

  • by DamienRBlack ( 1165691 ) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @04:51AM (#27252819)

    The discrepancy between how accurate your account on algae is and how ill-considered your analysis of Arabs is, is truly amazing.

    Why would you assume that just because the Arab nations are going to run out of money they are going to blatheringly insane? Would you assume that if the U.S. were running out of money we'd go ape-shit? No, you wouldn't. So your assumption shows a racist bias that is both unfounded and disgusting.

    For your information, most Arab countries are investing their oil money into both business and infrastructure. They are looking for ways to create a solid, long-lasting presence in business and finance. To think that the wealth will dry up just goes to show that you don't understand the scale of the money being generated. The wealth of countries like Saudi Arabia are far, far beyond critical mass, and will keep growing with or without oil. Saudi Arabia has more than 7 trillion dollars invested in U.S. companies, and they aren't just investing the America. The Saudi surplus is about as large as our deficit, and they only have 1/10th the number of people. As you can imagine, that is enough to do a lot of impressive things. These task are what these Arab nations are going to be focusing on, not lashing out like cornered animals.

    Take your paranoid xenophobia and desire to bankrupt entire cultures to some other forum. We don't want you here. For the record, equating Arab nations to terrorists is equivalent to equating the U.S. to the KKK. How stupid would this sentiment sound: Well, the American economy tanking is ultimately the only way to end global racism (the KKK) as a major problem and concern in the world. It would sound pretty damn stupid wouldn't it? Well Mr. Anenome, that is exactly how silly you sound to people who don't view the world through spectacles of discrimination.

  • by Anenome ( 1250374 ) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @05:51AM (#27253099)

    Yes, but when shipping becomes the largest cost of a product, distant producers cannot compete in price with local producers. This is, for instance, why beer companies have trouble competing on a national scale, and why (I think it was) Anheiser-Busch was caught freeze-drying, shipping 'beer powder' and then re-hydrating their beer across country. Oil is competitive because it can't be produced in America. But, algae-produced biodiesel can essentially be made anywhere, and therefore will be, and shipping long distances will put you at a serious disadvantage to the local producer.

    Having lots of sun won't make the middle-east a viable producer of biodiesel in the same way that they produced oil.

  • by Anenome ( 1250374 ) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @06:05AM (#27253161)

    Well, I think you're just being over-emotional about the issue because you're emotionally invested. I am not emotionally invested, nor am I a racist.

    I am however a futurist, and like to look at likely scenarios of the future. All I've said is that if the oil tap looks like it's going to run dry that this will destabilize the middle-east further. When the middle-east gets destabilized, generally a few things happen: 1) someone tries to attack Israel. 2) Terrorism increases globally. If you'd like to refute either of those points using history, I'd love to laugh at the attempt.

    Iran, for instance, sells a lot of oil right now, it finances their country in large measure. Things are fine for Iran economically, in general, yet they still talk, weekly, about nuking Israel. And you're trying to tell us that that behavior wouldn't get worse if it looked like Iran couldn't afford to spend so much on their military anymore? You are probably as economically illiterate as so many are, I suppose I cannot hold it against you. It's a modern tragedy.

    As for these countries having tons of money, you're way, way off. Saudi Arabia is nearly bankrupt. They have borrowed a fuck-ton of money, last time I checked, and I don't think that's changed since then, I can't imagine how it could have. If you want to say that the various royal families have gigantic gobs of money, sure, you got me there. That doesn't mean much, however, it's all in private hands. An economy needs a middle-class. What's your plan to convince the Saudi Royal family, and others like them around the world, virtual despots, to share the wealth? Kuwait is so oil-dependent that as of '91 they were paying a gigantic yearly salary of $80,000 to each resident of the country, many other countries do similar, Venenzuela was trying to set something up like that too (foolishly) until the price of oil floored again. You think Kuwait wouldn't be economically devastated by oil being replaced? You're fooling yourself.

    If the oil-tap gets turned off that would result in, literally, trillions of dollars per year no longer flowing into the middle-east. Do you really mean to say that that wouldn't have an effect on the middle-eastern economy? You're fooling yourself. The middle-eastern economy is currently dependent on that cash-flow and does not have the economic infrastructure in place to makeup a shortfall that could drop to zero within 5-10 years - which is exactly what Algae biodiesel could achieve. If WWIII broke out, and oil reserves were cut-off, that could result in a massive switch to biodiesel even faster on our part. When the switchover happens, at the least, the middle-east would experience a depression as long as 15-30 years in duration while it built up other avenues of economic production, and that assumes they don't go to war in that time period.

    I have no desire to see this happen, I wish the people of the middle-east well, by and large they are a decent people with extremists messing it up for everyone, just like everywhere else. But we also have to deal with the reality of the situation. You're anger just shows you're not prepared to look at things with that level of detachment.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 19, 2009 @06:28AM (#27253273)

    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.

    It probably wouldn't be much of a problem if it got loose. Competition between bacteria in the environment is incredibly tough, and resources are scarce. By increasing the activity of certain enzymes (over-expressing them so they are always produced) and turning off inhibitory genes the bacteria are always going to spending a stupendous amount of energy making these enzymes regardless of whether or not they get anything out of it. That's a big drag on their fitness.

    Think about it: if constantly expressing these enzymes was an evolutionarily viable strategy, these guys wouldn't have had to engineer the bacteria to do it.

  • Re:Why? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by cjanota ( 936004 ) on Thursday March 19, 2009 @06:40AM (#27253333)

    2. Maybe we could recycle used paper into fuel?

    All you need for that is a match.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 19, 2009 @07:45AM (#27253681)

    We can also view genetic engineering as evolution's way of speeding up itself.

    Can we though? Genetic engineering (especially in this case) is geared around industrially and scientifically useful properties. Evolution is more concerned with survival and propagation. The two aren't mutually exclusive, but they're not inclusive either.

    Yes, maybe bacteria could evolve more active habits of degrading plant material, but to the point they're over-expressing? The company behind this are naturally keeping quiet on exactly how this was done, but many industrially used expression vectors induce production of proteins just below the limit of solubility. As already said, that kind of energy expenditure is not good for competitive fitness, which is why many engineered bacteria have their product expression controlled by the presence or absence of certain compounds, like arabinose. Without that kind of control they'd get out-competed because of the huge energy burden put on them by the over-expressed genes.

    Engineering and evolution aren't quite analogues of each other. Evolution might not be done yet, but it tends to be a bit more balanced ecologically than engineering.

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