Genetically engineered bacteria grow fuel from sunlight

Scientists have engineered bacteria to make the precursor chemicals for fossil fuels and plastics, a breakthrough for the chemical industry.

Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are able to make carbon compounds from sunlight and carbon dioxide, in the same way that plants do. Scientists from the University of California, Davis adapted this process so that the bacteria used carbon dioxide to make 2,3 butanediol, a very useful chemical that is used to make make paint, solvents, plastics and fuels.

“Most chemical feedstocks come from petroleum and natural gas, and we need other sources,” says Shota Atsumi, an assistant professor of chemistry at UC Davis.

The chemists collaborated with the Japanese chemical company Asahi Kasei Corp. on the project. After three weeks of growth, the bacteria produced 2.4 grams of 2,3 butanediol per liter of input, the highest productivity of chemicals made by cyanobacteria ever achieved. 

This is promising news as it means that there is strong potential for commercial development of the process for use in industry.

In order to get the bacteria to undergo the right chemical reactions, the chemists first had to identify the enzymes that the bacteria would need to make the 2,3 butanediol. Once complete, the researchers had to introduce a three-step chemical pathway step by step into the cyanobacteria.

The next step for the researchers is to work on the system in order to improve productivity further before it can be scaled up for use in industry. The United States Department of Energy has set a goal to obtain 25 percent of industrial chemicals from biological processes by 2025.

Their findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.