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Microbe Genetically Engineered to Produce Biofuel

Ralstonia eutropha bacteria (Christopher Brigham, MIT)

Ralstonia eutropha bacteria (Christopher Brigham, MIT)

A research team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineered the genes of a soil bacterium so the organism can produce isobutanol, a “drop-in” biofuel. The team led by biologist Anthony Sinskey, including chemists and engineers from MIT, published its findings online in the journal Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology (paid subscription required).

Sinskey and colleagues investigated the capabilities of the bacterium Ralstonia eutropha (pictured left) that lives in soil as well as water, and has the ability to ingest carbon compounds from its surrounding environment when its normal diet of nitrates or phosphates is restricted. In its natural state, the microbe produces a type of polymer, a form of hydrocarbon similar to common plastics.

The researchers modified the genetic composition of the microbe, inserting a gene from another organism and altering the expression of other genes to produce isobutanol, a type of alcohol that chemically resembles gasoline. Unlike ethanol, isobutanol can be used in most of today’s car engines and does not need a separate transport infrastructure. The research is funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E).

In laboratory tests, the MIT team had the modified Ralstonia eutropha not only produce but also expel the isobutanol, thus removing the need to destroy the organism to retrieve the desired product. “We’ve shown that, in continuous culture, we can get substantial amounts of isobutanol,” says biologist and co-author Christopher Brigham.

In the lab, the bacteria uses the sugar fructose as their carbon source. The team now plans further genetic modifications to enable the microbes to ingest carbon from any source, including agricultural or municipal waste and carbon dioxide. The researchers also plan to optimize the system to increase the rate of production, and design bioreactors to scale the process up to industrial levels.

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