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Scientists use E. coli to make biofuel

April 24, 2013
KEYWORDS biofuel / e. coli
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e. coli bacteria
If the process could be scaled up, the end product could be an effective substitute for diesel.

Researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK have found a way to turn sugar into a fuel very similar to conventional diesel by using a genetically modified E. coli bacteria, BBC News has reported.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and its authors claim that, if the process could be scaled up, the end product could be an effective substitute for diesel. Professor John Love, a synthetic biologist from the University of Exeter, commented that the product is not a replacement for fossil fuels as other biofuels are. Instead the researchers have created a substitute fuel that is so similar to diesel that car manufacturers and consumers would hardly notice any difference.

If the new biofuel reaches the scale of mass production, it could cause a revolution in biofuel production. There is a 10-percent target to the use of crop-based fuel by 2020 in all European Union member states. However, this may be a problem as the majority of biofuels produced at present are not fully harmless to car engines and might cause damage to vehicles in the long term. To make them more usable, biofuels have to be blended with petroleum to create a mix containing between five percent and 10 percent of the biofuel substance, the BBC explained.

RELATED: US scientists look to turn algae into biofuel

Prof Love stated that the fuel produced with the help of E. coli bacteria was different and did not need to be blended with petroleum to be used in common vehicles. The product has the same chain length that is required by modern vehicles and has the right composition to make them work.

But how did researchers achieve this? With the help of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and oil giant Shell, which funded the project, scientists used a strain of E. coli bacteria that can convert sugar into fat. By using synthetic biology, researchers modified the cell mechanisms of the bacteria so that the sugar was turned to synthetic fuel molecules instead. This modification of the bacteria's genes made it possible for them to produce fuel, although it would take about 100 liters of bacteria to make a teaspoon of the fuel, Prof Love said.

The main challenge that researchers have to deal with now is to increase the yield before focusing on ways to develop industrial production. The team has about three to five years to do this and evaluate whether it would be economically viable to launch large-scale production, he explained. As part of the ongoing research, scientists are also looking into the bacteria's ability to convert other products into fuel, including human or animal waste.

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