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Bioengineered bacteria could produce fuel from CO2

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August 27, 2012

In the near future, genetically-altered Ralstonia eutropha bacteria could be used to conve...

In the near future, genetically-altered Ralstonia eutropha bacteria could be used to convert carbon dioxide gas into fuel

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have succeeded in genetically altering Ralstonia eutropha soil bacteria in such a way that they are able to convert carbon into isobutanol, an alcohol that can be blended with or even substituted for gasoline. It is hoped that once developed further, this technology could help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and lessen the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by smoke stacks.

When their regular carbon food sources become scarce, R. eutropha ordinarily respond by synthesizing a type of polymer, in which they store whatever carbon they’re able to find. By “knocking out a few genes, inserting a gene from another organism and tinkering with the expression of other genes,” the team of MIT biologists were able to get the bacteria to produce isobutanol instead of that polymer.

Unlike certain other biofuels, isobutanol can be used directly as is, requiring no refining. The bacteria produce the alcohol continuously, releasing it into their fluid environment, from which it can be filtered. This differs from experiments conducted at other institutions, in which various types of bacteria have had to be destroyed in order to harvest the desired biofuel byproducts from their bodies.

Currently, the genetically modified microbes are getting their carbon from fructose. It is expected that with further alterations, however, they should be able to draw it from industrial carbon dioxide gas emissions. In fact, the scientists believe that properly bioengineered R. eutropha should be able to feed on carbon from almost any source, such as agricultural or municipal waste.

The team is now looking into increasing the bacteria’s isobutanol production levels, and scaling the technology up for use in industrial-scale bioreactors. If successful, such facilities should lessen the need for biofuel-dedicated crops such as corn, that compete with food crops for land and water.

In fact, MIT isn’t the first place to experience success in this area of research. In 2009, scientists from UCLA announced that they had been able to harvest isobutanol from CO2-consuming Synechoccus elongatus bacteria.

A paper on the Massachusetts research was published this month in the journal Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology.

Source: MIT

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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12 Comments

They have genetically modified an organism so that it produces a poison. I hope it does not escape.

Slowburn
27th August, 2012 @ 03:18 pm PDT

This research seems to be ongoing, but should be banned. If we accidently produce an agressive carbon or CO2 converting bacteria that can live and breed outside of the laboritory we could be in very large trouble.

Kimo
27th August, 2012 @ 05:10 pm PDT

A friend of mine worked on a project to do this with algae but I agree about the danger introducing bio engineered organisms into the environment.

I remember when I watched the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" I thought the graph of CO2 levels over time was interesting because they raised in the northern winter and lowered in the northern summer. The reason given for it is that most land mass is located north of the equator and photosynthesis is enough to lower the world CO2 levels in the summer.

I wondered at the time which kind of plants are best at photosynthesis and how much research we have done into identifying them and breeding improved versions the same way we have done with everything else (even if just through selection and not GMO).

Photosynthesis is converts CO2 (carbon dioxide) with H2O (water) to make CH2O (a sugar) and O2 (oxygen) so it seems like doing so accomplishes a few things at the same time.

CH2O can be used as fuel but from what I have read it may be difficult to do with Algae. The amount of Oxygen different plants product might be difficult to measure but the amount of CH2O different plants produce is likely easier to measure and maybe also an indicator of the amount of CO2 it removes from the atmosphere.

GMO's are a pretty new science and they have only been used in large scale commercially since the mid 90's so there is still a lot of research to be done and its something that has the potential to both produce a better bio-fuel than corn based ethanol and to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere significantly.

Diachi
27th August, 2012 @ 09:39 pm PDT

Slowburn and Kimo??? there are an uncounted number of organisms that produce poison and or live on some carbon source. It would be completely scientifically ignorant to think this posses a danger to the world or man kind.

That said I found the work lacking in any detail. First this article suggest the organism feeds on Fructose, and they hope to someday have it feed on CO2, Then in stark contrast it states it has done just that.

There is no arguing that this is important work, but what I don't understand is using C02 as a food source.. Using CO2 as a food source and using it as a carbon source are completely different. Plants use CO2 but it gets its energy from the sun.

The abstract as expected mentions nothing about CO2 as "food" or CO2 emissions from smoke stacks.

I find the title and much of the article completely misleading and sad.

i do how ever highly support the work and think it is very promising.

Michael Mantion
27th August, 2012 @ 10:04 pm PDT

I dont see any benefit to Mankind or plant life by turning atmospheric CO2 into fuel vapour.

Kimo
28th August, 2012 @ 01:32 am PDT

re; Michael Mantion

"Slowburn and Kimo??? there are an uncounted number of organisms that produce poison and or live on some carbon source. It would be completely scientifically ignorant to think this posses a danger to the world or man kind. "

So you are saying? There are many natural toxins in the environment. It would be completely scientifically ignorant to think that PCP posses a danger to the world or man kind. "

The difference is that bacteria actually reproduce on their own.

Pikeman
28th August, 2012 @ 01:54 am PDT

Converting fructose to fuel is one thing -- fructose is already fuel! Converting CO2 to fuel has a huge problem: where does the energy come from?

piperTom
28th August, 2012 @ 05:09 am PDT

Kimo, pay attention, it says the bacteria releases it into it's surrounding liquid, not as a vapor

Lupoi Alexandru-Nicolae
28th August, 2012 @ 01:48 pm PDT

For Lunar base or Mars base use alone??

Awesome.

Stephen N Russell
28th August, 2012 @ 05:58 pm PDT

re; piperTom

While technically true you wont get very far with your car's gas tank filled with fructose.

Slowburn
28th August, 2012 @ 07:06 pm PDT

We have to be pretty careful when claiming that this tech will reduce C02 emissions from smoke stacks. The plan is not to sequester that C02, but to use it in a fuel that will be burnt. So the C02 will be released into the atmosphere. If the C02 is harvested from coal or natural gas power plants, this is not an alternative to transforming captured C02 to atmospheric C02. It does give you more bang for your buck though.

Will McNeill
29th August, 2012 @ 02:47 am PDT

re; Will McNeill

While I believe that GW isn't caused by man I must point out that the fuel created from the C02 from flue gas is intended to displace fuel from other sources (primarily oil) in motor vehicles. So in theory it is preventing some additional fossil carbon from entering the atmosphere.

Pikeman
30th August, 2012 @ 01:57 am PDT
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