July 2011

Pouring energy into biofuels

A protein-rich algal species from James Liao's lab. Credit: Hidevaldo Machado and Yi-Xin Huo from Liao group.

Seeking to pack even more energy into their fuel molecules, Keasling’s group engineered another set of bacteria to generate biodiesel using a reaction similar to how biodiesel enthusiasts make their own homebrew. First, the researchers tricked E. coli into overproducing the fatty acids that make up its membrane, adding in a plant gene that prevented these hydrocarbons from becoming part of the phospholipid bilayer. A series of non-native genes attached ethanol to the structure, esterifying it much like a home biodiesel maker would. The resulting fuel can be skimmed off the top of the tank and go directly into a diesel engine, Keasling says.

Taking the research one step further, he made another tweak in these bacteria that allowed them to digest hemicellulose, using it as a feedstock for biodiesel production.

Keasling notes that it’s still very early times in the biofuel field. His and other academic labs energetically continue to churn out fresh ideas and research, which fuel companies – from big giants to tiny startups – are eyeing with interest. One of these ideas, he says, might eventually end up in the engine of your car.

“We’re fortunate, because there’s a lot of interest right now,” he says. “It’s a really great time to be working in this area.”


Christen Brownlee (christenbrownlee@gmail.com) is a freelance science writer based in Baltimore, Md.

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