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.”
That Styrofoam protecting your new flat-panel TV in its shipping box? It might soon be made of mushrooms. Not the ones you throw on your salad—those are the reproductive structures of fungi—but the underground networks of dental-floss-like “roots” called the mycelium.
Biologists at New York’s Union College have teamed up with a company called Ecovative Design to produce totally biodegradable packaging material that could replace expanded plastics, which are made from petrochemicals. Ecovative’s replacement is made of agricultural byproducts like cotton gin waste; seed hulls from rice, buckwheat and oats; and hemp or other plant materials that are glued together by growing a matrix of fungal mycelia around them.
The company is using several species of fungi to mix with the farming byproducts that can grow packaging in five days. Union biologist Steve Horton and his team are helping the company by isolating fungal strains that might speed up the production process.
“We manipulate one strain in various ways to see if we can make versions of the fungus to suit certain applications the company has in mind,” Horton said in a university announcement. “For example, it might be helpful if Ecovative has certain versions that grow faster.”