Genetically Modified E. Coli Bacteria Can Now Synthesize Diesel Fuel

By combining genes from different bacteria species, scientists created E. coli that can consume fat and excrete diesel fuel

combining genes
By combining genes from different bacteria species, scientists created E. coli that can produce diesel fuel from fat. Image via Marian Littlejohn/PNAS

Over the past few decades, researchers have developed biofuels derived from an remarkable variety of organisms—soybeans, corn, algae, rice and even fungi. Whether synthesized into ethanol or biodiesel, though, all of these fuels suffer from the same limitation: They have to be refined and blended with heavy amounts of conventional, petroleum-based fuels to run in existing engines.

Though this is far from the only current problem with biofuels, a new approach by researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK appears to solve at least this particular issue with one fell swoop. As they write today in an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team has genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to produce molecules that are interchangeable to the ones in diesel fuels already sold commercially. The products of this bacteria, if generated on a large-scale, could theoretically go directly into the millions of car and truck engines currently running on diesel worldwide—without the need to be blended with petroleum-based diesel.

The group, led by John Love, accomplished the feat by mixing and matching genes from several different bacteria species and inserting them into the E. coli used in the experiment. These genes each code for particular enzymes, so when the genes are inserted into the E. coli, the bacteria gains the ability to synthesize these enzymes. As a result, it also gains the ability to perform the same metabolic reactions that those enzymes perform in each of the donor bacteria species.

By carefully selecting and combining metabolic reactions, the researchers built an artificial chemical pathway piece-by-piece. Through this pathway, the genetically modified E. coli growing and reproducing in a petri dish filled with a high-fat broth were able to absorb fat molecules, convert them into hydrocarbons and excrete them as a waste product.

Hydrocarbons are the basis for all petroleum-based fuels, and the particular molecules they engineered the E. coli to produce are the same ones present in commercial diesel fuels. So far, they’ve only produced tiny quantities of this bacterial biodiesel, but if they were able to grow these bacteria on a massive scale and extract their hydrocarbon products, they’d have a ready-made diesel fuel. Of course, it remains to be seen whether fuel produced in this way will be able to compete in terms of cost with conventional diesel.

Additionally, energy never comes from thin air—and the energy contained within this bacterial fuel mostly originates in the broth of fatty acids that the bacteria are grown on. As a result, depending on the source of these fatty acids, this new fuel could be subject to some of the same criticisms leveled at biofuels currently in production.

For one, there’s the argument that converting food (whether corn, soybeans or other crops) into fuel causes ripple effects in global food market, increasing the volatility of food prices, as a UN study from last year found. Additionally, if the goal of developing new fuels is to fight climate change, many biofuels fall dramatically short, despite their environmentally-friendly image. Using ethanol made from corn (the most widely used biofuel in the U.S.), for example, is likely no better than burning conventional gasoline in terms of carbon emissions, and maybe actually be worse, due to all the energy that goes into growing the crop and processing it info fuel.

Whether this new bacteria-derived diesel suffers from these same problems largely depends upon what sort of fatty acid source is eventually used to grow the bacteria on a commercial scale—whether it would by synthesized from a potential food crop (say, corn or soy oil), or whether it could come from a presently-overlooked energy source. But the new approach already has one major advantage: Just the steps needed to refine other biofuels so they can be used in engines use energy and generate carbon emissions. By skipping these steps, the new bacterial biodiesel could be an energy efficient fuel choice from the start.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.