In recent years scientists have been very successful at modifying microorganisms for humanities benefit. This represents a burgeoning field called synthetic biology, in which natural sources are being retooled for new use. While the concept of synthetic biology has been around for over 100 years, recent technological advances have made it a lot easier for researchers to modify organisms. The products of these modifications cover a wide spectrum, from new medications, to nano structures and new sources of biofuel.
A collaboration between scientists at Yale and Harvard has yielded a bacteria with a completely new genetic code. This is the first time that an organism’s entire genome has been rewritten. For this experiment the researchers disabled Escherichia coli’s stop codon, which ends protein production. They found that altering the translation of the protein gave the bacteria an increased ability to resist the mechanism by which viruses infect the cell.
Because an organism has never been genetically modified to this degree before the possibilities to utilize this are seemingly endless. Scientists could potentially use this technique to more efficiently engineer bacteria to become biofactories, capable of producing proteins used to fight disease or to create new bio materials.
Modified Bacteria As A Fuel Source
Bacteria have been the focus of new sources of fuel for a while now. In fact, research endeavors seeking to develop transportation fuel derived from microorganisms has received $48 million in grants from the United States Department of Energy, and private grants has topped $200 million. Fuel in this category contains diesel, gasoline, or petrol alternatives, which are all carbon neutral. The process of extracting fuel from microbes is ten times more efficient than traditional methods of manufacturing biofuels.
While scientists have been able to generate biodiesel from bacteria for a while now,it has been structurally different from regular diesel. Recently scientists developed a way to extract biodiesel from E. coli that is structurally similar to conventional fuel. This means it works with existing engines without needing to be mixed with petroleum-based products, giving it a huge advantage over previous biodiesels.
Biogasoline, however, has been much more elusive to manufacture. Earlier this year a team in Korea successfully engineered certain strains of E. coli bacteria that produce the short-chain alkanes of gasoline, along with free fatty acids, fatty esters, and fatty alcohols for the first time.
Not all of the recent research is seeking to produce petroleum-based knockoffs. Many labs are working in the risky business of developing electrofuels, in which bacteria are engineered to eat carbon dioxide and excrete butanol as a waste product. Butanol is a gasoline alternative which has 30% more energy than ethanol, along with the added benefit of being able to work with existing gasoline-powered engines.
Using genetically modified bacteria to derive fuel could be a sustainable alternative to drilling for fossil fuels. The biggest challenge so far has been manufacturing the fuel in large enough quantities to make it a viable option. The ability to modify the bacteria’s entire genome to produce the biofuel, along with the product working in existing motors, may usher in a large movement of switching to sustainable, carbon neutral fuel.