Evil E. coli Bacteria Gets Good Guy Status As Biodiesel Producer

E. coli is a bacteria name which generally strikes fear in those who hear it mentioned as a source of sickness. What if it could be used for good though, such as producing advanced biofuel? That is the positive conclusion reported from a collaboration led by researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), who said they have “engineered a strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria to produce biodiesel fuel and other important chemicals derived from fatty acids.”

This new research, according to a press release from the Berkeley Lab at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was inspired by a search for “new transportation fuels that are renewable and can be produced in a sustainable fashion.” Previous studies had shown that “liquid fuels derived from plant biomass are one of the best alternatives if a cost-effective means of commercial production can be found,” so it was considered that fatty acids, which are said to be “energy-rich molecules” and “nature’s petroleum,” should be looked at. E. coli, known for being able to easily synthesize fatty acids, was studied as a tool for biofuel development. The combination of this bacteria with “new biochemical reactions realized through synthetic biology,” made it possible for the researchers “to produce structurally tailored fatty esters (biodiesel).”

E.coli Biofuel

image via Berkeley Lab

The team which did this groundbreaking research is now looking into how to improve efficiency and the speed by which their engineered strain of E. coli can directly convert biomass into biodiesel. “Productivity, titer and efficient conversion of feedstock into fuel are the three most important factors for engineering microbes that can produce biofuels on an industrial scale,” said Eric Steeen, one of the JBEI researchers from its Fuels Synthesis Division. “There is still much more research to do before this process becomes commercially feasible.”

I am the editor-in-chief and founder for EarthTechling. This site is my desire to bring the world of green technology to consumers in a timely and informative matter. Prior to this my previous ventures have included a strong freelance writing career and time spent at Silicon Valley start ups.