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Why A Super Strain Of E. Coli Could Be A Good Thing

Why A Super Strain Of E. Coli Could Be A Good Thing

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.

Related Reading:

E. Coli Outbreaks Possible For 3 More Years In Europe

McDonald’s Partnership Will Recycle Veggie Oil Into Fuel

Are Biofuels Killing 192,000 People Each Year?

Image Credit: Flickr – prep4md
Source: Stanford University

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91 comments

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8:12AM PST on Dec 10, 2011

This frightens me! If we haven't heard, our experimentation with our current use of fossil fuels has contributed to the potential demise of the earth. We need to start thinking about what we are doing . . . consider as much as we can, the consequences of the decisions we make in "new fuel" production-on all fronts! We seem to be stuck in crisis management of our issues right now. Who knows what this could do-if something goes very wrong?

1:43PM PST on Dec 9, 2011

No way. Who wants a dangerous strand of E. Coli aound, when there are safe energy sources.

10:31AM PST on Dec 8, 2011

very interesting

1:29PM PST on Dec 7, 2011

The problem with Ethanol is it's political backing. How to move money and manpower away from it. It's by products are terrible for the air we breathe.

9:53PM PST on Dec 6, 2011

Thanks for the article.

8:44AM PST on Dec 6, 2011

This sounds really great.

7:27PM PST on Dec 5, 2011

It soundeth good unto my ears er....I mean looks good !

11:20AM PST on Dec 5, 2011

Might be something interesting to see into

12:50AM PST on Dec 5, 2011

cool!

9:37PM PST on Dec 4, 2011

I hope when they say "sugar" it was waste sugar not food sugar. Using food to make fuel often have bad effect to the food price........

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