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.
A new method of creating 3-D images of living cells without disturbing them promises to open an unprecedented view into how they operate.
University of Illinois engineers say the technique, called white-light diffraction tomography, will let researchers watch cellular processes as they unfold, the effects of drugs and how stem cells change into specialized cells.