While the food we buy may look safe, it’s the bacteria that we can’t see that make it unsafe to eat.
This year, one in six Americans will get sick from food poisoning.
It can cause serious health problems. Washing and cooking food properly helps to prevent the spread of food-borne illness, but bacteria can still lurk on and inside food.
“It has many routes to get into not only food animal products but also things like leafy greens, and even processed foods,” said Paul Ebner, a microbiologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
There’s a large and growing list of renewable energy projects pumping out cleaner electricity these days. Photovoltaic panels produce direct current and solar concentrators drive steam turbines using sunlight. Wind turbines churning out megawatts of power dot the landscape of many countries. Other projects are looking to light communities through tides, running rivers and even the heat of the Earth.
Creating current is all well and good for energizing homes, businesses and even motor vehicles, but when it comes to flying airplanes or turning the screws on big ships, batteries storing alternative-energy-produced electricity just can’t yet deliver the power needed. That’s why these large machines still need combustible liquids like diesel, aviation fuel and bunker oil that pack a bunch of energy into small volumes to drive their engines.
For these and other high-power applications, renewable energy needs to up its oomph. The best way to do that would be to concentrate sunlight’s energy, for instance, into a machine that converts it directly into fuel. For well over a century, we’ve been using a version of this that comes out of the ground in the form of petroleum products, which are the hydrocarbon-rich remnants of organic matter that lived eons ago. The ancient organisms that form our fossil fuels are the concentrated distillates of sunlight.
The possibility of using nonfood plants to cheaply and sustainably fuel our vehicles may have just veered into the fast lane.
Scientists report they have successfully genetically engineered bacteria to convert complex carbohydrates in tough grasses directly into ethanol, a type of alcohol that can fuel internal combustion engines.
“Making biofuel from plants is really important because it’s carbon neutral—the same CO2 you put in to grow it comes out when you burn it,” says Janet Westpheling, a University of Georgia genetics professor who led the research. “It’s one of the reasons why the future of energy in this country has to rely at least in part on plants.”
At the heart of the work conducted at UGA and Oak Ridge National Lab, is what Westpheling calls a paradigm shift in approaching a longstanding problem in producing biofuels.
If dry bacteria spores of the genus Bacillus were boxers, commentators would say they punch above their weight.
When they dehydrate, the rod-shaped spores— dormant cells that help the microorganism survive tough environmental conditions and are naturally found in soil and vegetation—shrivel or curl like a leaf. Add some moisture and they straighten out again. Studies have shown that they can absorb water and expand with remarkable force. Now scientists say this phenomenon can be harnessed to use the microbes as a potential source of renewable energy or as muscles to make superstrong robots.
In research recently reported in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, a team detailed how they smeared spores on a flat piece of rubber and created a bacteria-powered generator.