For those of us who toil in marine biology, these are exciting times: we've known now only for a few years that populations of cyanobacteria in the open oceans contribute significantly to nitrogen fixation and total biological productivity. In fact, they are in large part responsible for supplying the nitrogen used by phytoplankton to conduct photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria such as Trichodesmium and Synechocystis have thus become hot research subjects in the field.
Given their abilities (and relative abundance), it is perhaps not surprising that some enterprising marine scientists have already been investigating their potential in the production of alternative energy sources. Pengcheng (Patrick) Fu, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Hawai'i, has devised a way to turn carbon dioxide into ethanol by using a combination of cyanobacteria and sunlight. By successfully transforming two genes from a fellow cyanobacterium, Fu and his colleagues were able to engineer a specific strain of Synechocystis that emits ethanol as waste upon using carbon dioxide and sunlight. With his new startup - SUNOL Biotechnology (that we encountered at Wired Nextfest) - Fu hopes to be able to build a large-scale ethanol plant within the next 2-3 years.
In addition to removing carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, Fu envisages using the cyanobacteria to pull it out of power plant emissions, helping to prevent further GHG release into the atmosphere and slowing the onset of global warming.
See also: ::Heat-Seeking Bacteria Could Hold Key to Better Cellulosic Ethanol, ::You Got Bacteria in My Gas: Engineering Microbes to Make Hydrocarbons
Image courtesy of WIRED