Posting in Architecture
Scientists at Bio Architecture Lab tinkered with the superbug e.coli and turned it into a microbe that can turn the sugar in seaweed into fuel, and maybe even renewable chemicals.
Scientists with the U.S. biotech company Bio Architecture Lab have genetically engineered a strain of the e.coli bacteria to extract the sugars in seaweed and convert them into renewable fuels, chemicals, possibly green plastics. BAL's findings are detailed in today's issue of Science magazine.
BAL, which was spun out of the University of Washington, has worked for several years to bioengineer a microbe that could turn macroalgae into ethanol and renewable chemicals at a commercial scale. Despite its low-profile, the company has attracted grant money via the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and some big name partners including DuPont and Norwegian oil giant Statoil.
Last month, BAL started construction on a pilot facility in Chile to develop its technology. The facility, which will demonstrate the entire process from seaweed farming to biofuel production, is expected to be operational late this year.
How it works
Scientists at BAL genetically altered a strain of Escherichia coli -- the stomach bacteria that has made headlines for contaminating food in recent years -- so it could convert sugars found in an edible kelp into fuel. About 60 percent of the dry biomass of seaweed are sugars, and more than half of those are locked in a single sugar -- alginate, CEO Daniel Trunfio, a former Shell executive, said in a statement yesterday. The crux was bioengineering the microbe so it could break down alginate.
Others have tinkered with using e.coli to make fuel. Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint BioEnergy Institute have engineered the first strains of e.coli bacteria that can digest switchgrass biomass and synthesize its sugars into gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. But unlike switchgrass and other woody biomass, seaweed doesn't have lignin, which is difficult to break down into sugar. Seaweed also doesn't require arable land or freshwater to grow.
Of course, economics is now the remaining challenge. BAL has four seaweed farms in Chile and claims it's had "great success" in growing the feestock at economically viable production yields. However, the company hasn't revealed any cost figures, and most likely won't until the demonstration facility has been up and running for some time.
BAL has one advantage that could help spread out the risk and diversify its potential revenue stream. The bioengineered microbe has the potential to turn the seaweed into products other than ethanol, including renewable chemicals.
Photo: NOAA; BAL
- E.coli bacteria that eats switchgrass to make fuel
- New e.coli bacteria strain can turn biomass into biodiesel
Jan 20, 2012
Great! Scientists playing God. Just what we need. Another frankenorganism that escapes into the environment and makes the healthy seaweed that I eat into an inedible piece of garbage that only serves an economic minority. We shall reap what we sow. Zackers. You actually believe that there are effective controls? BP thought so about blowout preventers.
For some reason people think that the modified E. coli will be used in the open ocean or used to modify the genetic structure of seaweed. From BAL's website, it does not appear to be the case. Normal seaweed will be harvested, and taken to a processing site on land where the modified E. coli will be used in a controlled environment to convert the alginate. The oceans and the normal seaweed ecosystem will be left untouched. I suppose that it's possible some of the E. coli might theoretically escape down the sewage lines and be dumped into the ocean, but I'm assuming BAL will take great steps to prevent this, just as it's done with other modified bacteria.
I hope they engineered some stop in the growth, so that the bacteria can't live free in the ocean. Otherwise we have the possibility of the loss of over 50% of oxygen production. I'm one of these people who actually doesn't mind genetic modifications (what do you think selective breeding is) but you need to make sure that you step back and check to make sure you have the obvious things that could go wrong covered.
What happens if this gets released into the ocean and all the seaweed (and maybe photo-plankton) starts breaking down? How much of the earth's life depends on the oceans for Oxygen? engineering dangerous organisms and making fuel from food is morally wrong. my 2 pennys worth.
On the one hand, this promises great breakthroughs for biofuels. On the other hand, where is the research on what happens to fish and marine organisms when they feed on genetically engineered seaweed? We want the energy, but that should not allow us to treat the ocean as a 'thing' that does not have its own delicate life-balance that needs sustaining.