Trees that grow and glow may one day replace street lamps, cutting down on electricity use and CO2 emissions, according to a group of synthetic biologists. The biohackers at Singularity University in Moffett Field, Calif., plan to crossbreed a plant and bioluminescent bacteria. If successful, their result will be a fully viable herb that can emit light.
“We are going to insert five different genes from a bacterium into a plant,” says cell and molecular biologist Kyle Taylor, a member of the team trying to bring the hybrid to life. The group plans to import bioluminescent genes from the marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri into the plant Arabidopsis thaliana, a member of the family that also includes cabbage and mustard.
They put their proposed project up on crowdfunding site Kickstarter, offering stickers, T-shirts, seeds of their glowing floral creations or the grown plants themselves to potential backers. With more than a month remaining for contributors to give, their Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with no Electricity project had already attracted more than 1,000 donors and had surpassed its funding goal.
Scientists working to make exact chemical copies of fossil fuels from living microbes say they have scored a major victory in the lab. Merging genes from the camphor tree, soil- and gut-dwelling bacteria, and a microorganism that is lethal to insects, researchers have produced molecular replicas of petroleum-based fuels.
The team, composed of researchers from Exeter University in the United Kingdom and Shell, engineered the DNA of E. coli, a bacterium commonly found in the gut of mammals, to alter how it metabolizes its food so that it excretes the fossil-fuel replicas.
The new fuel doesn’t need to be heavily processed after it’s produced to work in combustion engines, says study coauthor John Love. It could be a solution that bypasses a major hurdle for conventional biofuels, which are not fully compatible with vehicles already out on the road.
“Modern engines are not suited to using these biofuels without major modifications and/or loss of performance,” Love, an associate professor of plant and industrial biotechnology at the University of Exeter, tells Txchnologist. “Ideally, you’d want to replace the fossil fuel with a biofuel that matches it exactly in chemical structure. We have engineered bacteria to produce such a fuel: biological gasoline or bio-alkanes. These hydrocarbons can be added directly to any engine, including a jet engine.”
When Cella Energy CEO Stephen Voller demos little squares of white fluffy material, he isn’t holding cotton swabs from a local pharmacy. Neither is he tossing a handful of cereal when he showcases tiny white pellets that look like Cheerios dipped in sugar. The materials he presents are complex nanoparticle compounds, which may hold the answer to the long-pursued challenge of safely and effectively storing hydrogen fuel.
“Each one of these when heated will release hydrogen gas,” he says of the small heap of pellets in his palm. “You get about a balloon worth of hydrogen gas from that.”
Government researchers have figured out how to add sunlight into natural gas to boost its potency.
Using a concentrating solar collector to inject the sun’s power into natural gas, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) scientists can now convert the standard fossil fuel into higher-energy syngas.
They say the system lets power plants use about 20 percent less energy when the sun is shining while producing the same amount of electricity.
“Our system will enable power plants to use less natural gas to produce the same amount of electricity they already make,” PNNL engineer Bob Wegeng, who is leading the project, said in a statement. “At the same time, the system lowers a power plant’s greenhouse gas emissions at a cost that’s competitive with traditional fossil fuel power.”