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Boffins beget bacterial biofuel bonanza

E coli put to less evil use

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Californian boffins have developed a way of producing more powerful biofuels, using genetically modified food-poisoning bacteria.

James Liao, biochemical engineering prof at UCLA, led the team which managed to produce long-chain alcohols using the Escherichia coli bacterium, aka E coli, better known for its severe effects when found in meat pies.

Liao and his crew tinkered with the food-poisoning bacteria's genes, inserting alternatives from "a cheese-making bacterium, and another, from a type of yeast often used in baking and brewing," it says here. Rather than illness, cheese or beer, the resulting micro-Frankensteins produced long-chain alcohols.

Long-chain alcohols are better than ordinary biofuels such as ethanol and methanol because they have greater energy density, containing more carbon atoms to be burned off as CO2. They are also easier to separate from water.

"Previously, we were able to synthesize long-chain alcohols containing five carbon atoms," says Liao.

"We stopped at five carbons at the time because that was what could be naturally achieved... We showed we are not limited by what nature creates. From an energy standpoint, we wanted to create larger, longer-chain molecules because they contain more energy. This is significant in the production of gasoline and even jet fuel."

Liao's genetically redesigned biotoxic cheesy superyeast can apparently crank out eight-carbon alcohol without any bother.

The paper with full details of the research is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It can be read online here (not free). ®

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