Scientists Engineer Extreme Microorganisms To Make Fuel From Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

A University of Georgia team tinkered with the genes of Pyrococcus furiosus, and the new breed is hungry for the smoggy stuff.

P. furiosus Bacterium

Missouri University of Science and Technology

To find a way of fending off global warming, scientists sometimes look to nature. Plants, after all, use photosynthesis to snap up carbon dioxide, the biggest source of our climate change woes. So we get inventions like artificial leaves and ambitious projects like a plan to give fish photosynthesizing powers. One of the more interesting plans: genetically alter microorganisms so they can chow down on some CO2, too.

University of Georgia researchers recently used the mighty Pyrococcus furiosus, which usually eats carbohydrates and lives in super-heated waters or volcanic marine mud (ideally, for it, at about 100 degrees Celsius). By toying with the genome-sequenced microorganism's genetic material, they were able to make it comfortable in much cooler waters, and to eat carbon dioxide. After that, using hydrogen gas to form a chemical reaction in the microorganism, the researchers got the microorganism to produce 3-hydroxypropionic acid, a common chemical used in household products. That's been done before, but the researchers are looking into turning the process into one that could eventually produce fuel.

If it is able to produce fuel, that wouldn't make it the first bacteria-like organism to do so. Others have been able to make that happen in a lab. But for anyone working on it, the next move after proving it works is scaling up. Then, ideally, we'll start getting water bottles that can power our homes.