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Killer Bacteria Could Breathe New Life into Biofuel Production

Rutgers University researchers are developing biofuel from e coli bacteriaPut this one in the category of every cloud has a silver lining: E. coli, the bacteria notorious for contaminating food products from lettuce to  ground beef, could also play a key role in developing the next generation of biofuels. A team of scientists from Rutgers University is working with computer modeling to tweak the pesky little bug into overproduce fatty acids, which can then be processed into biodiesel.


If the research is successful, chalk up another win for producing biofuels from sustainable, non-food sources that can be grown without competing for land with food crops.  The growing list includes weedy plants, woody plants, algae and various microorganisms.

Biofuel from E. Coli

E. coli is short for Escherichia coli, which is a rod-shaped bacteria. Some strains are harmful but others are responsible for serious food poisoning. The Rutgers team focused on E. coli because a considerable platform of knowledge has grown up around the bacteria over the past 60 years of lab study, rather than having to start from scratch. E. coli produce fatty acids, which share many characteristics with fuel molecules.  Thanks to computer modeling, the team has been able to examine the effect of modifications on entire sections of genome, rather than changing individual genes. The next step, of course, is to develop new strains of E. coli based on the models.

Biofuels and Transportation

In just the past two years, attention has shifted rapidly out of food-sourced biofuels and into a wide variety of feedstocks. Unlike food crops and fossil fuels, which typically must be hauled over long distances to refineries and then to their point of use, the many new options in biofuels mean that more communities, businesses and utilities can source their energy closer to home – in some cases, new biofuels could be as close as the neighborhood sewage treatment plant.

Image: E. coli by Mattosaurus on wikimedia commons.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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