Does the basic catalytic engine in E. coli have enough horsepower to convert inexpensive sugars into biodiesel? That’s the question posed by Stanford researchers investigating if the bacteria, often discussed in terms of the human digestive tract, have what it takes to produce high volumes of fuel.
In an effort to identify a method for mass producing biodiesel from plant-derived raw materials, researchers turned their attention to using E. coli as a catalyst for transforming sugar into fatty acid derivatives that are chemically similar to gasoline. But in doing so they ran into a problem: The natural conversion capability of the bacteria fell short of what was needed to produce the eco-friendly fuel on a commercial scale.
So researchers began examining if there was a natural limit holding back E. coli’s conversion capabilities, and they discovered that the catalytic process in E. coli can only attain peak efficiency when all the cellular controls are tuned just right. According to an article from Stanford Report:
The researchers managed to isolate all the enzymes and other molecular participants involved in the process that produces fatty acids in E. coli and assemble them in a test tube for study.
By doing so, the team was able to study how the enzymes involved in fatty acid biosynthesis performed when they were free from other cellular influences. That was critical to their analysis, because the products in question, fatty acids, are essentially soap, [study co-author Chaitan Khosla, Phd,] said, and too much of them would hurt the bacteria. That is why E. coli has developed some very elaborate and effective ways to contain the amount of fatty acid biosynthesis inside the cell.
The findings appear in a paper recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers’ next step is to understand how all the cellular controls operate and figure out how to manipulate the cellular means of production in E. coli. Doing so could result in the bacteria powering a lot of larger engines in the future at far less cost to the environment than with fossil fuels.