E. coli used to produce biofuel
Scientist studies alternative ways to produce diesel
By MATTHEW WEAVER
Research into the use of the bacteria Escherichia coli may push the biodiesel movement beyond agriculture and into a new arena.
"Using any foodstock, whether it's canola oil, cane sugar, corn, whatever -- in my opinion this is all temporary technology," Desmond Lun, Rutgers University associate professor of computer science, told the Capital Press. "What we're working on now is the technology to jump over that, so we're not going to be relying on those sources any more."
Based in Camden, N.J., Lun is working on ways to modify E. coli to make biodiesel from sugars.
Lun said he is creating a computer-aided process to modify E. coli genomes so the bacteria efficiently produces biodiesel.
Lun wants to produce a more lucrative fuel, such as biodiesel or biopetrol, which can be more easily used than ethanol.
Instead of using food to make the fuel, Lun wants to use other plant matter or, ideally, develop a microorganism that directly takes in carbon dioxide and converts it to fuel.
"If we can create an organism that does the fuel production, once we create one, they go out and reproduce very rapidly," Lun said. "Once we have one organism that works well, we just breed them."
Lun is considering microalgae, which would either be inside a self-contained bioreactor or grown on farms or in ponds, ensuring the organism doesn't interact with the natural environment.
Microbes are used in similar industrial processes to produce chemicals such as antibiotics or in ethanol and alcohol fermentation, Lun said.
Lun said the work is a long-term research project, with the goal to have E. coli producing biodiesel efficiently within the next few years. Within five to 10 years, he believes it will be possible to have an organism that directly converts carbon dioxide into fuel.
E. coli genomes are immensely complicated, Lun said, so the computers tell researchers how to modify them.
Lun is using a standard laboratory strain of E. coli because it is commonly used in molecular biology and easy to work with. The researchers created new computer-designed strains of E. coli and are constructing those strains in the laboratory they wish to use.
"We've created a few preliminary strains that are very promising," Lun said. "We are in the process now of creating more strains from our computational modeling."
Washington State University veterinary microbiology and pathology professor Thomas Besser is well familiar with E. coli, as he works to determine which interventions were most effective to reduce the risk of a more pathogenic strain of E. coli, O157:H7, that can infect cattle and humans.
The vast majority of E. coli are perfectly harmless, normal and don't cause any disease, Besser said. They probably work to keep humans healthy, he added.
Besser said anything can be easily added to E. coli bacteria to get a desired effect, either by adding whole genes it doesn't naturally have or changing the regulation of genes to produce more.
"I think it sounds really cool," Besser said of Lun's project. "We're all aware of the problems with drilling oil, whether it be here or in the Middle East and importing it."
Feedstock program director Alan Weber said his organization, the National Biodiesel Board, supports new feedstocks that enhance supplies and increase the growth of the industry.
During the next three to five years, the industry will rely on the feedstocks currently in use, including winter canola, camelina, corn and soybeans. Any new feedstock, including that needed for algae production, will aid supplies years down the road, he said.
U.S. Canola Association director of communications Angela Dansby said agriculture will likely still have a role in biodiesel production. In the short-term, Dansby sees plenty of opportunity for agriculture to be part of the biodiesel movement.
Longer term, it depends on how rapidly other sources of biodiesel are developed, and how much they are able to contribute, she said.