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Wash U researchers take us one step closer to using biofuel made from e-coli

Engineers at Washington University have found a way to make biofuel from e-coli bacteria.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health
Engineers at Washington University have found a way to make biofuel from e-coli bacteria.

People in much of the country are familiar with ethanol, a type of biofuel made from corn that is added to gasoline.

But many may not know that it is also possible to make biofuel from bacteria like e-coli. That could change, now that engineers at Washington University have found a more cost-effective way to make fuel from bacteria.

Gayle Bentley, a doctoral student in the Department of Energy, Environment and Chemical Engineering  at Wash U, has discovered how to change an enzyme in some types of bacteria so that it produces compounds that act like the ones in petroleum. Bentley recently published her findings in the journal Metabolic Engineering.

"We're trying to make the same compounds that you would normally find in petroleum," said Bentley, who has been working to produce gasoline from bacteria.

Using biochemistry, Bentley altered bacteria so that it produces more of a fatty acid that can help make a very effective fuel — one that doesn't freeze in cold temperatures.

“If you use traditional biofuels, it’s hard to use them in cold weather, for example, in the winter in St. Louis,” said Fuzhong Zhang, an assistant professor in the department. “Whenever the temperature drops below zero degrees, those fuels will turn into a solid so it doesn’t run on your engine.”

The Wash U breakthrough could allow motorists to use fuel that's cleaner and more efficient than fossil fuels. Bacteria-derived fuel also could be put to wider uses than ethanol, which does not work for all engine types.

“With this technology, someone who wants to do large scale production can take our discovery and make their pathway and production and whatever organism they’re doing more efficient,” Bentley said.

 Bentley’s research team recently filed for a patent on the method.

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.