Biofuel from Stomach Bugs
Researchers are transforming gut microbes into biodiesel-making factories.
Someday you might fill up your vehicle with fuel produced by bacteria. Researchers have engineered E. coli bacteria to convert sugar into hydrocarbons identical to the conventional diesel that powers big trucks and machines.
Currently, biofuel made from corn or sugarcane must be mixed with regular gas, or engines must be modified to run on it if the blend is below 20 percent biofuel.
"The biofuel we made could be used directly, without retrofitting engines or mixing," says John Love, a synthetic biologist from the University of Exeter in England, whose work is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
There are considerable technical hurdles to overcome. Love's team is fine-tuning the stomach bugs to transform them into industrial-scale fuel-making factories, for instance.
And there's the question of what to feed the bacteria. Love and colleagues plan to investigate whether the gut microbes could convert manure or human waste, rather than sugar, into fuel.
"Ideally," he says, "they'd feed off something that nobody wants to produce something that everybody wants."
A version of this story that ran in the July-August 2013 issue was titled "Wasteful Driving."