E. coli. The very mention of this insidious bacterium sends a shudder of fear through even the most stalwart digestive systems. However, there might soon be a reason to feel quite affectionate toward this dastardly microbe.
Researchers at Stanford University have discovered that e. coli has the ability to convert inexpensive sugars into fatty acid derivatives that are chemically similar to gasoline. This means the bacterium that wreaks havoc on your digestive tract could be the secret to producing high volumes of plant-based biofuel cheaply and efficiently.
Biodiesel is typically produced from plant-based oils or animal fats. Restaurants that produce a large amount of oil for cooking are a great resource for small biofuel productions, but this is too small scale to make an impact on national fossil fuel use.
For E. coli, turning plant matter into a gasoline substitute is second nature, but it too might need a little tweaking before it can be useful at the commercial scale.
“The good news is that the engine that makes fatty acids in E. coli is incredibly powerful,” said Chaitan Khosla, a professor of chemistry and of chemical engineering at Stanford. “It is inherently capable of converting sugar into fuel-like substances at an extraordinary rate. The bad news is this engine is subject to some very tight controls by the cell.”
To get the bacteria up to snuff, scientists will have to figure out a way to bypass E. coli’s normal cellular controls. While this will be uncharted territory in the field of biochemistry, researchers are already off to a strong start. They’ve already managed to isolate all the enzymes and other molecular participants involved in the process that produces fatty acids in E. coli and assemble them in a test tube for study.
By doing so, the team was able to study how the enzymes involved in fatty acid biosynthesis performed when they were free from other cellular influences. That was critical to their analysis, because the products in question, fatty acids, are essentially soap, Khosla said, and too much of them would hurt the bacteria.
If future research on E. coli is successful, it could finally enable biodiesel to take back part of the alternative fuel market that’s been dominated by easy-to-make and highly subsidized ethanol.