Scientific Advances: Altered bacterium can make biofuel from biomass

An online paper published by the weekly science journal Nature, in 28 January 2010, describes the work of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the biotech firm LS9 of San Francisco, California, among others, that engineered a bacterium capable of converting raw plant biomass into biodiesel and other important chemicals derived from fatty acids. In the paper, titled “Microbial Production of Fatty Acid-Derived Fuels and Chemicals from Plant Biomass” the authors use tools of synthetic biology to “demonstrate the engineering of Escherichia coli to produce structurally tailored fatty esters (biodiesel), fatty alcohols, and waxes directly from simple sugars.”  They also describe “engineering of the biodiesel-producing cells to express hemicellulases, a step towards producing these compounds directly from hemicellulose, a major component of plant-derived biomass.”

Escherichia coli  is one of the best known microorganisms, which is very amenable to genetic manipulation.  Its natural ability to synthesize fatty acids make it especially useful for testing changes in fatty acid metabolism that can lead to production of fuels and other chemicals.  Also, engineering Escherichia coli to produce hemicellulases enables the microbes to unlock sugars from the cellulosic plant cell walls to produce fuels directly, a strategy that has potential to improve the economics of cellulosic biofuel production.

To learn more, visit the website of Nature.

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