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Transgenic E. coli made to produce hydrocarbon fuels
Super cool work from researchers in the UK
Excerpt from “Bacteria churn out first ever petrol-like biofuel” by Rebecca Summers
To be used as a mainstream alternative to fossil fuels – desirable because biofuels are carbon-neutral over their lifetime – engines would have to be redesigned, or an extra processing step employed to convert the fuel into a more usable form.
To try to bypass that, John Love from the University of Exeter in the UK and colleagues took genes from the camphor tree, soil bacteria and blue-green algae and spliced them into DNA from Escherichia coli bacteria. When the modified E. coli were fed glucose, the enzymes they produced converted the sugar into fatty acids and then turned these into hydrocarbons that were chemically and structurally identical to those found in commercial fuel.
“We are biologically producing the fuel that the oil industry makes and sells,” says Love.
“Synthesis of customized petroleum-replica fuel molecules by targeted modification of free fatty acid pools in Escherichia coli”
Biofuels are the most immediate, practical solution for mitigating dependence on fossil hydrocarbons, but current biofuels (alcohols and biodiesels) require significant downstream processing and are not fully compatible with modern, mass-market internal combustion engines. Rather, the ideal biofuels are structurally and chemically identical to the fossil fuels they seek to replace (i.e., aliphatic n– and iso-alkanes and -alkenes of various chain lengths). Here we report on production of such petroleum-replica hydrocarbons in Escherichia coli. The activity of the fatty acid (FA) reductase complex from Photorhabdus luminescens was coupled with aldehyde decarbonylase from Nostoc punctiforme to use free FAs as substrates for alkane biosynthesis. This combination of genes enabled rational alterations to hydrocarbon chain length (Cn) and the production of branched alkanes through upstream genetic and exogenous manipulations of the FA pool. Genetic components for targeted manipulation of the FA pool included expression of a thioesterase from Cinnamomum camphora (camphor) to alter alkane Cn and expression of the branched-chain α-keto acid dehydrogenase complex and β-keto acyl-acyl carrier protein synthase III from Bacillus subtilis to synthesize branched (iso-) alkanes. Rather than simply reconstituting existing metabolic routes to alkane production found in nature, these results demonstrate the ability to design and implement artificial molecular pathways for the production of renewable, industrially relevant fuel molecules.