E. coli can cause serious food poisoning, but scientists at the University of Exeter have turned it into a driving force.7:06pm UK, Wednesday 24 April 2013
Scientists have developed a biofuel that could be a direct replacement for diesel at the pumps – with the help of E. coli bacteria. Most biofuels that are currently available are not truly compatible with modern engines. New Scientist pointed out that such fuels will work, but not efficiently, and will corrode an engine over time. It said engines would have to be redesigned, or an extra processing step introduced, in order to convert the fuel into a more mainstream form. Because of this, current biofuels are generally used as additives, or “drop in” fuels, rather than a complete fuel in their own right.
However, John Love from the University of Exeterhas found a way to create hydrocarbons that are chemically and structurally identical to those found in commercial diesel. Dr Love and his colleagues took genes from the camphor tree, soil bacteria and blue-green algae and then spliced them into the DNA of the Escherichia coli bacterium – better known as E. coli. Most E. coli strains are harmless, but some can cause serious food poisoning in humans. The scientists fed glucose to the modified E. coli, which ultimately produced a substance similar to commercial diesel. The glucose used by Dr Love and his team came from plants, but he believes straw or animal manure could be used to carry out the process on a larger scale.
“We are biologically producing the fuel that the oil industry makes and sells,” Dr Love insisted. The University of Exeter said: “E. coli bacteria naturally turn sugars into fat to build their cell membranes. “Synthetic fuel oil molecules can be created by harnessing this natural oil production process. “Large scale manufacturing using E. coli as the catalyst is already commonplace in the pharmaceutical industry. “Although the biodiesel is currently produced in tiny quantities in the laboratory, work will continue to see if this may be a viable commercial pathway to ‘drop in’ fuels.” Shell, which partially funded the project, said it hoped the discovery could help limit the rise in carbon dioxide emissions while responding to the growing global requirement for transport fuel.