Engineered bacteria make fuel from sunlight

January 7, 2013

Chemists at the University of California, Davis, have engineered blue-green algae to grow chemical precursors for fuels and plastics—the first step in replacing fossil fuels as raw materials for the chemical industry.

"Most chemical feedstocks come from petroleum and natural gas, and we need other sources," said Shota Atsumi, assistant professor of chemistry at UC Davis and lead author on the study published Jan. 7 in the .

The U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal of obtaining a quarter of from by 2025.

Biological reactions are good at forming carbon-, using carbon dioxide as a raw material for reactions powered by sunlight. It's called , and cyanobacteria, also known as "blue-green algae," have been doing it for more than 3 billion years.

Using cyanobacteria to grow chemicals has other advantages: they do not compete with food needs, like corn's role in the creation of ethanol.

The challenge is to get the cyanobacteria to make significant amounts of chemicals that can be readily converted to chemical feedstocks. With support from Japanese chemical manufacturer Asahi Kasei Corp., Atsumi's lab at UC Davis has been working on introducing new chemical pathways into the cyanobacteria.

The researchers identified enzymes from online databases that carried out the reactions they were looking for, and then introduced the DNA for these enzymes into the cells. Working a step at a time, they built up a three-step pathway that allows the cyanobacteria to convert carbon dioxide into 2,3 butanediol, a chemical that can be used to make paint, solvents, plastics and fuels.

Because enzymes may work differently in different organisms, it is nearly impossible to predict how well the pathway will work before testing it in an experiment, Atsumi said.

After three weeks growth, the cyanobacteria yielded 2.4 grams of 2,3 butanediol per liter of growth medium—the highest productivity yet achieved for chemicals grown by cyanobacteria and with potential for commercial development, Atsumi said.

Atsumi hopes to tune the system to increase productivity further and experiment with other products, while corporate partners explore scaling up the technology.

Explore further: Project could help colonize space

Related Stories

Project could help colonize space

August 2, 2011

Humans may move one step closer to colonizing space thanks to a new research project that NASA is funding at South Dakota State University, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and Oglala Lakota College.

Researchers explore a sustainable bio-based chemical economy

August 24, 2012

With cyanobacteria, carbon dioxide and sunlight, a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers aims to create a sustainable alternative source of commodity chemicals currently derived from an ever-decreasing supply ...

Engineering alternative fuel with cyanobacteria

January 7, 2013

(—Sandia National Laboratories Truman Fellow Anne Ruffing has engineered two strains of cyanobacteria to produce free fatty acids, a precursor to liquid fuels, but she has also found that the process cuts the bacteria's ...

Recommended for you

A new form of real gold, almost as light as air

November 25, 2015

Researchers at ETH Zurich have created a new type of foam made of real gold. It is the lightest form ever produced of the precious metal: a thousand times lighter than its conventional form and yet it is nearly impossible ...

Moonlighting molecules: Finding new uses for old enzymes

November 27, 2015

A collaboration between the University of Cambridge and MedImmune, the global biologics research and development arm of AstraZeneca, has led researchers to identify a potentially significant new application for a well-known ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.