We thought it was cool when a team of Arizona State researchers engineered genetic bombs that blow biofuel-producing cyanobacteria wide open, releasing their sweet fatty acids without intense chemical processing. But now those very same researchers have figured out how to get at those fatty acids in a far less violent manner: by genetically engineering cyanobacteria to secrete their fatty cargos directly through their cell walls.
Bacteria are an ideal source for the key ingredient in biofuels -- they are receptive to genetic manipulation, they have a high energy yield that draws on the sun, they don't take up arable crop land and they're cheap. But the energy-intensive and costly processes that extract the good stuff from bacteria can turn an otherwise good fuel source into a less-than efficient one.
But even after figuring out how to prompt an explosive cell suicide that turned the bacteria inside out, the ASU team wasn't content that they'd found the most efficient way to get to cyanobacteria's fatty goodness. "In China, we have a saying," researcher Xinyao Liu says of the process. "We don't kill the hen to get the eggs."
The team's earlier research had already figured out how to fatten up the bacteria by coaxing them into overproducing fatty acids. But instead of genetically bombing them, researchers introduced a specific enzyme, thioesterase, into cyanobacteria. The enzyme uncouples fatty acids from carrier proteins, freeing them within the cell wall until they reach the point that the cell secretes them through diffusion. The secretion process has also been enhanced by genetically removing a couple of layers from the cell envelope, increasing secretion rates by three times.
The result of all this genetic tinkering: tiny bacterial factories that continuously secrete the key ingredients for manufacturing cheap, sustainable biofuels. The researchers are confident that further tweaks to the bacteria can increase fatty acid yields, bringing the process even closer to scalability and -- hopefully -- commercial viability. And perhaps best of all: you get the eggs without killing the hen.
Anyone remember the theme of some of the martian chronicles stories... technology achieves is height with the aliens because they used natural things for their tools. I am sure there is a better way to say that. I'm just super tired. Anyway tech like this is like a look back on old sci-fi.
Nothing will slow fossil fuel consumption. The energy corps will see to that.
old-scratch, I imagine that you're right, for at least the next 1-2 generations, simply because if everyone in every aspect of alternative energy were to have "Eureka!" moments simultaneously, moving stuff into the fabric of everyday life is a lengthy process.
But I stop short of saying we'll *never* stop using fossil fuels, or at least greatly lessening our use of them compared to what we use now.
Look at what's going on already in solar and wind; they're ramping up and prices are dropping -- not enough yet, but they're getting there, and doing so despite the recession, which is pretty impressive. If algae and the like become a viable source, I bet that'll leapfrog ahead, especially after we in America figure out we could throw open every reserve we have plus every promising area for future exploration and production and *still* not see much of a dent in our consumption of imported oil -- and STILL see no dent at *all* for a good 8-10 years. (Ditto nuclear, by the way.)
I'm not trying to argue with you; I guess I'm somewhat more optimistic than you appear to be, based on your comment. Apologies if I've misread it.