Has it made anyone raise an eyebrow or two when noticing that gas prices have gone down since the government closed up shop? Sure, the two things probably have little to do with each other, but it’s an interesting coincidence. You know what’s no coincidence? That E. coli can be used to produce gasoline. That’s just amazing.
A paper on the subject titled “Microbial Production of Short-chain Alkanes,” was recently published online in the journal Nature<, and details the work of a South Korean research team lead by Distinguished Professor Sang Yup Lee of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). It isn't often bacterial organisms get good representation. There has been success in the past at metabolically engineering E. coli to produce 13-17 atom long-chain alkanes, hydrocarbons made up of carbon atoms linked by carbon-carbon bonds. These long alkanes are capable of replacing diesel, but gasoline is made of up short-chain alkanes of 4-12 atoms.
As stated succinctly by ResearchSea, “The research team engineered the fatty acid metabolism to provide the fatty acid derivatives that are shorter than normal intracellular fatty acid metabolites, and introduced a novel synthetic pathway for the biosynthesis of short-chain alkanes.” The paper details screening enzymes associated with fatty acid production, engineering the enzymes and pathways to concentrate carbon flux to the production of short-chain fatty acids, and how to introduce the pathway to allow for conversion of fatty acids to the gasoline alkanes. In other words, they did a bunch of things it would take me a week to understand without looking at notes.
Professor Lee explains:
It is only the beginning of the work towards sustainable production of gasoline. The titre is rather low due to the low metabolic flux towards the formation of short-chain fatty acids and their derivatives. We are currently working on increasing the titre, yield and productivity of bio-gasoline. Nonetheless, we are pleased to report, for the first time, the production of gasoline through the metabolic engineering of E. coli, which we hope will serve as a basis for the metabolic engineering of microorganisms to produce fuels and chemicals from renewable resources.
As an added bonus, the researchers were able to add a variety of different enzymes, which produced fatty esters and alcohols, which means that E. coli could one day assist in creating make-up, detergent, and vegetable oil. If only we could figure out how to make food out of brain-eating amoebas and cell phones out of measles.
Who knows where this invention will one day take fuel production? Not the guy in the video below. Watch at your own risk.