Gross but Cool: Bacteria Might Replace Fossil Fuels

Researchers are working to grow the chemical precursors for fuels and plastics from the organism.
Is this the future of plastics: Cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, cells enclosed in layers of a gelatinous material. (Ed Reschke/Getty)
Jan 9, 2013
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

We’re all familiar with the mind-bogglingly simple process of photosynthesis—plants using carbon dioxide and sunlight to fuel their growth. Algae and bacteria also gain energy through photosynthesis and scientists have some big ideas about how that they might harness that energy to help reduce our use of fossil fuels.

In what ScienceDaily calls the first step to replacing fossil fuels as raw materials in the chemical industry, scientists have engineered blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, to grow chemical precursors for fuels and plastics.

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“We believe that if cyanobacterial chemical production is successful, this strategy could reduce carbon emissions and petroleum dependency,” Shota Atsumi, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of California, Davis and the lead author on the study, told TakePart. “Cyanobacteria can naturally convert light energy to biological energy and fix carbon dioxide like plants. But cyanobacteria can grow much faster than plants, and it is relatively easy to modify cyanobacteria genetically.”

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While that sounds sort of straightforward, there’s a bit more that needs to happen before cyanobacteria can produce chemicals in amounts large enough to be converted to chemical feedstocks, most of which come from petroleum and natural gas.

Atsumi explained that “cyanobacteria can convert carbon dioxide to a central metabolite [a metabolite is any substance produced during metabolism], pyruvate, but not to useful chemicals, in this case, 2,3-butanediol,” which is a chemical that’s used to make paint, solvents, plastics and fuels.

ScienceDaily noted that Atsumi and his team “identified enzymes from online databases that carried out the reactions they were looking for, and then introduced the DNA for these enzymes into the cells.” Specifically, Atsumi said this entailed “installing three enzymes to convert pyruvate to 2,3-butanediol from other organisms.”

Again, this was easier said than done.

Atsumi explained that, “cellular conditions such as pH, salt concentration, and temperature are different in each organism and many enzymes do not work well in different organisms. Currently, we cannot predict how enzyme A from organism A works in organism B. Thus we need to test all enzymes in the target host, in this case, cyanobacteria.”

After three weeks, Atsumi said the cyanobacteria yielded enough butanediol for commercial development. He added that he hopes to experiment with other products and, “We would like to try many chemicals that should be biologically producible and useful.”

So while obtaining industrial chemicals from biological processes won’t be as quick as those photosynthesis simulations I remember, researchers like Atsumi are off to a good start.

Are you surprised to learn that a simple organism like algae could potentially be used in the production of materials for the chemical industry? Let us know in the COMMENTS.

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