Bioengineered strain of e.coli produces fuel-worthy hydrocarbons

Aug 15, 2007

A bioengineering firm called LS9 has done something remarkable with the bacteria e.coli (the Swiss Army Knife of gengineering) - they successfully engineered a strain to produce arbitrary hydrocarbon compounds in addition to the usual fatty acids that life on this planet uses to store energy. Specifically, the bacterial strains almost produce the hydrocarbons that are normally pumped out of the ground in the form of crude oil and then fractionated ("cracked") into different substances. Mix the right hydrocarbons together and you get gasoline. Or diesel fuel. Or the raw materials needed to make plastics.

I say 'almost' because the hydrocarbons still have attached to them a carboxyl group as a by-product of the bacteria's synthesis process. Those are actually pretty easy to remove, however. Much more easily (and in a far less polluting manner) than the cracking process crude oil normally undergoes.

In some sub-strains existing genes in the e.coli genome were tweaked to produce a slightly different compound. In other sub-strains new genes were designed from scratch and installed (probably through plasmid uptake). No matter how you cut it, this is a breakthrough in both genetic engineering and petroleum research. I don't know if their bacterial strains can produce whole crude oil (as it's usually thought of) yet, but they can definitely synthesize discrete as well as some mixtures of hydrocarbons in usable quantities.

LS9 will bring a test plant online in California sometime in 2008 to perfect the process, and they hope to start producing biodiesel and synthetic hydrocarbon crude mixtures inside of five years.

Another company, Amyris Biotechnologies is working on similar projects, only they're engineering microbes that will produce whole fuels (like gasoline), which would obviate the need for any processing at all.

No word yet if Big Oil is going to sue them into a smoking hole in the ground.