You Got Bacteria in My Gas: Engineering Microbes to Make Hydrocarbons
The day when we'll be getting our fix of hydrocarbons from a vat of engineered microbes instead of vats of gasoline from the Middle East may be coming sooner than expected. LS9, the self-styled "renewable petroleum company" based in San Carlos, CA, is using the nascent field of synthetic biology to modify bacteria into creating hydrocarbons for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
The company plans on incorporating gene pathways present in other microbes, plants and animals into these bacteria to give them the ability to store energy. LS9 joins a group of recent startups that include Amyris and SunEthanol that are also focusing on applying synthetic biology towards the engineering of microorganisms able to produce biofuels.Stephen del Cardayre, the company's vice president for research and development, claims LS9 is the first among these to make microbes that are capable of secreting hydrocarbons and says that it is now working on customizing the rate of production and the hydrocarbons themselves. "We certainly have gone beyond what we think anybody else was even thinking of doing" in terms of producing hydrocarbons from microbes, says George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School and one of the company's co-founders.
Cardayre argues that LS9's biofuels offer several benefits that make them more attractive as an alternative to fossil fuels than do ethanol-derived fuels, including higher cost-efficiency and lower energy consumption in production (65% less energy).
Although this technology shows great promise, many in the fields of life sciences and business have cautioned that there is no way yet of ascertaining when and whether biofuels will overtake traditional fossil fuels. Noubar Afeyan, the CEO of Flagship Ventures, recently said "That is a subject of great debate and great prognostication. The opportunity is so large that I don't have to believe in much more than a few percentage points of market penetration for it to be worth our investment."
Besides using their technology to bring specific types of fuel such as high-performance jet fuel or sulfur-free gasoline to market within four or five years, officials at LS9 plan on licensing it to other companies, particularly ethanol producers that could use it to improve the profitability and efficiency of their production capacity.
See also: ::Bacteria: Now More Environmentally Friendly than Ever, ::The Next Big Fuel Source: Microbes?, ::Green Tech Will Spawn the Next Google Says Sun's Co-Founder, ::Will Custom-Made Microbes Help Power the Future?, ::Motor Powered by Bacteria, ::The Pollution Eating & Power Generating Bacteria