The dreaded E.Coli bug, which we humans normally cant wait to be rid off can be a major pocket saver if this research is anything to go by. Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have engineered the first strains of Escherichia coli bacteria that can digest switch grass biomass and synthesize its sugars into gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. E. coli bacteria normally cannot grow on switchgrass, but JBEI researchers engineered strains of the bacteria to express several enzymes that enable them to digest cellulose and hemicellulose and use one or the other for growth.
These cellulolytic and hemicellulolytic strains of E. coli, which can be combined as co-cultures on a sample of switch grass, were further engineered with three metabolic pathways that enabled the E. coli to produce fuel substitute or precursor molecules suitable for gasoline, diesel and jet engines.
The JBEI researchers also attribute the success of this work to the “unparalleled genetic and metabolic tractability” of E. coli, which over the years has been engineered to produce a wide range of chemical products. However, the researchers believe that the techniques used in this demonstration should also be readily adapted to other microbes. This would open the door to the production of advanced biofuels from lignocellulosic feedstocks that are ecologically and economically appropriate to grow and harvest anywhere in the world. For the JBEI researchers, however, the next step is to increase the yields of the fuels they can synthesize from switch grass.
Having read lots of such reports, we are a bit sceptical about anything that magically promises to solve our fuel woes. However as with any new technology, this holds great hope. We are going to keep our fingers crossed that big oil does not throw a spanner in the works this time around.