Science and Tech


Biofuels In One Easy Step: Just Add Modified E. Coli

Researchers at Berkeley National Laboratory have made it easier than ever to turn plant matter into usable fuel.
Posted at 4:45 PM, May 10, 2016

New research could make cooking up batches of biofuel as easy as using a crockpot.

Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have condensed a common biofuel manufacturing process down to a single container.

The old method was a three-step process: Liquid salts break down plant matter. Enzymes convert the plant matter into sugars. Then, microbes like E. coli convert the sugars to biofuels. Those steps had to be broken up because the enzymes and microbes couldn't survive the salts. 

Now researchers have engineered E. coli that can tolerate the salt and will even crank out the plant-converting enzymes it needs. They can throw everything into one vat and come back to biofuels.

They tested the hardier bacteria on switchgrass and got ethanol and even components of jet fuel.

It's an important achievement. Simplifying the production process is a crucial step if biofuels are ever going to compete with oil.

The researchers hope the modified bacteria could eventually lead to one-pot solutions for any source plant material.

This video includes clips from Berkeley National Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy and music from Frenic / CC BY 3.0.