It could be an aerial photo of an oil spill: liquid spheres pooling, oozing, dwarfing a bedraggled landscape. I half expect to zoom in on poisoned seal pups or waterbirds dragging their oil-soaked feathers. But the scene is microscopic. The “landscape” is made of E. coli. And what’s happening is exactly the opposite of what it seems. The little bugs aren’t drowning in fuel. They’re making it.
I’m watching this image on a computer screen at Amyris Biotechnologies in Emeryville, California, where one of the founders, biologist Jack Newman, is giving me a tour. The genetically manipulated E. coli before me are highly crafted units of industrial production, which Amyris is using to turn sugar into novel versions of gasoline, jet fuel and diesel—in other words, the fuels on which the world already runs. Amyris is one of a handful of young biofuel companies putting a brilliant and weird twist on the future of green. It’s betting that, with the help of bacteria, the long-term answer to our gasoline woes will actually be . . . gasoline.
Because as it stands, the main alternative to petroleum, ethanol (a type of alcohol), is fraught with problems. It can’t be pumped through current infrastructure because it tends to corrode pipelines. And according to University of Minnesota economist Jason Hill, even if all the corn grown in the U.S. were converted to ethanol, it would replace only some 12 percent of the 146 billion gallons of gasoline we use every year. Cellulosic ethanol—fuel produced from the cellulosic matter contained in plant stalks and stems rather than from seeds—would solve that problem, but the technology to produce it on a large scale is still a way off. Plus, ethanol simply isn’t as energy dense as petroleum-based fuels.
This is why a growing number of scientists have begun to look to the microbial world for new, environmentally sound ways to make good old-fashioned gasoline. If microbes can be manipulated to turn, say, sugarcane into hydrocarbon fuel—and each new sugarcane crop absorbs most of the carbon dioxide that’s emitted by burning the fuel made from the previous crop—then you’ve got oil-free, nearly carbon-neutral gasoline. It may sound far-fetched, but the evidence is in this picture; oily blobs of hydrocarbons pool around the cells in a pattern that looks like a lava-lamp screensaver. “So this is how you’re gonna save the world?” I ask Newman. “Help save the world,” he corrects.single page