Distinguished Professor Sang Yup Lee of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has reported, for the first time, the development of a novel strategy for microbial gasoline production through the metabolic engineering of E. coli bacteria.

E coli Bacteria to Make Gasoline. Click image for the largest view.

E coli Bacteria to Make Gasoline. Click image for the largest view.

The Institute’s scientists succeeded in producing 580 mg of gasoline per liter of cultured broth by converting the in vivo generated fatty acid.

The paper, entitled “Microbial Production of Short-chain Alkanes”, was published online in Nature on September 29.

For decades industry used fossil resources to produce liquid fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and many industrial and consumer chemicals for daily use.  But the increasing effort and costs to find natural resources as well as the environmental issues have triggered a strong interest in developing sustainable ways to obtain fuels and chemicals.

Gasoline, the petroleum-derived product that is most widely used as a fuel for transportation, is a mixture of hydrocarbons, additives, and blending agents. The hydrocarbons, called alkanes, consist only of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Gasoline has a combination of straight-chain and branched-chain alkanes (hydrocarbons) consisting of 4-12 carbon atoms linked by direct carbon-carbon bonds.

Previously, through metabolic engineering of Escherichia coli (E. coli), there have been a few research results on the production of long-chain alkanes, which consist of 13-17 carbon atoms, suitable for replacing diesel fuel.

But there has been no report until this week on the microbial production of short-chain alkanes as possible substitutes for gasoline.

The paper reports on the development of a novel strategy for microbial gasoline production through metabolic engineering of E. coli.

The research team engineered the fatty acid metabolism to provide the fatty acid derivatives that are shorter than normal intracellular fatty acid metabolites, and introduced a novel synthetic pathway for the biosynthesis of short-chain alkanes. This allowed the development of platform E. coli strain capable of producing gasoline.  Additionally the platform strain, if desired, can be modified to produce other products such as short-chain fatty esters and short-chain fatty alcohols.

The Korean researchers describe in the paper detailed strategies for 1) screening of enzymes associated with the production of fatty acids, 2) engineering of enzymes and fatty acid biosynthetic pathways to concentrate carbon flux towards the short-chain fatty acid production, and 3) converting short-chain fatty acids to their corresponding alkanes (gasoline) by introducing a novel synthetic pathway and optimization of culture conditions.  The research team also showed the possibility of producing fatty esters and alcohols by introducing responsible enzymes into the same platform strain.

Professor Sang Yup Lee said, “It is only the beginning of the work towards sustainable production of a green gasoline. The titer (a way of expressing concentration) is rather low due to the low metabolic flux towards the formation of short-chain fatty acids and their derivatives. We are currently working on increasing the titer, yield and productivity of bio-gasoline. Nonetheless, we are pleased to report, for the first time, the production of gasoline through the metabolic engineering of E. coli, which we hope will serve as a basis for the metabolic engineering of microorganisms to produce fuels and chemicals from renewable resources.”

The amazing thing is the incredible versatility of E, coli.  Congratulations are in order for the getting the gasoline product coaxed out of the genetic code.  It’s a good day for the energy density of gasoline products for consumers.  It’s also a worth a note that the E. coli sourced gasoline would (should) satisfy the green crowd’s demand for a renewable source of transport fuel. Lets hope the path to commercial scale isn’t long and torturous and we see a gradual shift to an unending supply of motor fuel.


6 Comments so far

  1. Hitch on October 3, 2013 1:46 AM

    “the green crowd” – those of us that don’t want to die prematurely. ‘Libertarians’ just can’t help themselves sometimes.

    Great site, usually.

  2. Brian Westenhaus on October 3, 2013 11:49 PM

    Umm, Might want to check those life expectancies pre-industrialization and pre-high technology. I choose some risks for decades more life for almost everyone.

  3. Jeremiah Johnson on October 4, 2013 11:14 AM

    Careful, Brian. I think Hitch is challenging you to a duel, for the honor of greens. As long as you choose “wits” as your weapons, you’ll do fine. Greens are notoriously clumsy using the brain. It’s all that koolaid, don’t you know.


    But seriously, folks, greens would like nothing more than to see at least 6.9 billion humans vanish from the planet, while always assuming that they will be among the survivors.

  4. Craig Binns on October 6, 2013 9:38 PM

    But seriously, they want to kill off all but a few million people? That really is serious. It’s not in the UK Green Party’s published manifesto. No wonder. Now, equally seriously, how do they intend to perpetrate this unprecedented act of genocide, and ensure that they personally survive? I’d love to know how that might be done.

  5. Hitch on October 8, 2013 11:09 AM

    I think you fellas are the ones with a drinking problem. Why don’t you try ‘krokodil’ I understand that has gasoline in it. Mmmmm tasty.

  6. Benjamin on October 10, 2013 10:43 AM

    You know, I know a fellow from Eugene, Oregon who is a former green anarchist. He’s always said that killing off at least 90% of the human race is the only hope the planet has. And he says that opinion is widely shared among the green activists he knows.

    Not a scientific poll, but then that kind of person is not known for publicly volunteering opinions.

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