Synthetic Biology meet Energy Industry, UCLA researchers modify E coli to produce biofuels

December 14 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy   Year: Beyond   Rating: 1

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Should our bioenergy solutions be limited to what nature has provided?

Or if it was possible to improve upon the efficiencies of algae and microbes to 'eat' carbon to produce low cost, clean forms of energy- should we try to improve upon nature at the molecular level?

Many researchers have already answered - Yes.

Startups like Amyris, LS9 and Synthetic Genomics are developing commercial products. 

The good news is that they are making progress. The bad news is that the public is totally unprepared to have a conversation about the idea of 'synthetic biology'.  If leadership does not emerge soon to explain the benefits of bioenergy solutions, confusion and fear could soon outshine the promise of synthetic biology.

What happened at UCLA?
Earlier we covered a breakthrough by Craig Venter's team in advancing synthetic biology and genome assembly. Now researchers at UCLA have engineered a synthetic biological pathway inside Ecoli bacteria to produce a next generation biofuel equivalent to gasoline.

The team led by Professor James Liao inserted genes into the Ecoli, a well studied and commonly modified bacteria, to produce alcohol liquid fuels from sugar rich feedstocks. The butanol grade fuels have the same energy content equivalent, or better, of traditional gasoline.  

"The ability to make these branched-chain higher alcohols so efficiently is surprising," according to Liao. "Unlike ethanol, organisms are not used to producing these unusual alcohols, and there is no advantage for them to do so.  The fact taht they can be made by E. coli is even more surprising, since E. coli is not a promising host to tolerate alcohol.  These results mean that these unusual alcohols in fact can be manufactured as efficiently as what evolved in nature for ethanol.  Therefore, we now can explore these unusual alcohols as biofuels and are not bound by what nature has given us."

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UCLA Press Release

The research was supported in part by UCA Dept of Energy Institute for Genomics and Proteomics, and the UCLA-NASA Institute for Cell Mimetic Space Exploration.

Image EColi Flickr Creative Commons

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