Novel technology produces gasoline by metabolically-engineered microorganism

September 29, 2013
This diagram shows the metabolic engineering of Escherichia coli for the production of short-chain alkanes (gasoline) from renewable biomass. Credit: KAIST

For many decades, we have been relying on fossil resources to produce liquid fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and many industrial and consumer chemicals for daily use. However, increasing strains on natural resources as well as environmental issues including global warming have triggered a strong interest in developing sustainable ways to obtain fuels and chemicals.

Gasoline, the petroleum-derived product that is most widely used as a fuel for transportation, is a mixture of hydrocarbons, additives, and blending agents. The hydrocarbons, called alkanes, consist only of carbon and . Gasoline has a combination of straight-chain and branched-chain alkanes (hydrocarbons) consisted of 4-12 carbon atoms linked by direct carbon-.

Previously, through of Escherichia coli (E. coli), there have been a few research results on the production of long-chain alkanes, which consist of 13-17 , suitable for replacing diesel. However, there has been no report on the microbial production of short-chain alkanes, a possible substitute for gasoline.

In the paper (entitled "Microbial Production of Short-chain Alkanes") published online in Nature on September 29, a Korean research team led by Distinguished Professor Sang Yup Lee of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) reported, for the first time, the development of a novel strategy for microbial gasoline production through metabolic engineering of E. coli.

The research team engineered the to provide the fatty acid derivatives that are shorter than normal intracellular fatty acid metabolites, and introduced a novel synthetic pathway for the of short-chain alkanes. This allowed the development of platform E. coli strain capable of producing gasoline for the first time. Furthermore, this platform strain, if desired, can be modified to produce other products such as short-chain fatty esters and short-chain fatty alcohols.

In this paper, the Korean researchers described detailed strategies for 1) screening of enzymes associated with the production of , 2) engineering of enzymes and fatty acid biosynthetic pathways to concentrate carbon flux towards the short-chain fatty acid production, and 3) converting short-chain fatty acids to their corresponding alkanes (gasoline) by introducing a novel synthetic pathway and optimization of culture conditions. Furthermore, the research team showed the possibility of producing fatty esters and alcohols by introducing responsible enzymes into the same platform strain.

Professor Sang Yup Lee said, "It is only the beginning of the work towards sustainable production of gasoline. The titer is rather low due to the low metabolic flux towards the formation of short-chain fatty acids and their derivatives. We are currently working on increasing the titer, yield and productivity of bio-gasoline. Nonetheless, we are pleased to report, for the first time, the production of gasoline through the metabolic engineering of E. coli, which we hope will serve as a basis for the metabolic engineering of microorganisms to produce fuels and chemicals from renewable resources."

Explore further: High-octane bacteria could ease pain at the pump: Engineered E. coli mass-produce key precursor to potent biofuel

More information: Microbial production of short-chain alkanes, DOI: 10.1038/nature12536

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5 / 5 (1) Sep 29, 2013
This is promising but also worrying, what happens if these microbes are released into the environment, would they survive and thrive outside of the laboratory and if so what are the effects they could have on the environment.
I'm all for bio-engineering in this way but it would be good to know that the microbes rely on something that they won't find in the natural environment so that we can control where they exist, otherwise the risk of poisoning the soil is very real.
1 / 5 (4) Sep 29, 2013
U.S is $lowly yielding Major Breakthroughs to Other ...that too hitherto 3rd World Countries! Time to Posture on the Reasons for such lagging behind.
4.3 / 5 (4) Sep 29, 2013
would they survive and thrive outside of the laboratory and if so what are the effects they could have on the environment.

A micro-organism that is engineered to spend most of its energy to produce gasoline has an evolutionary handicap. It can't multiply very fast because it's wasting most of its effort making something that isn't useful to itself, so it's less efficient than naturally occurring organisms in utilizing its food source and will be outcompeted to death, or will lose the adaptation that makes gasoline in favor of making more of itself.

The thing about scifi scare superbugs is that everything has a cost. Nature already produces really dangerous stuff, like botulin producing bacteria, but they're small in numbers because they have to compete with others for living space and food, so they all have to be a bit jacks of all trades and masters in none.
1 / 5 (4) Sep 29, 2013
Why bother? AGWites won't let you burn it.

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