Princeton-based startup Proterro has announced the development of a technology that can produce sugar, the main source for ethanol, by using engineered cyanobacteria, photosynthetic organisms that can produce sucrose through a normally-occurring defense system.
Unlike the methods of producing sugar from corn or sugarcane, Proterro’s technology relies on much less water for that purpose. Their engineered cyanobacteria produces sucrose when the water they’re growing in is too salty. Because of the danger that the osmosis phenomenon poses to them, the bacteria defend themselves this way.
Still, the mechanism has been triggered by discovering the genes responsible for it. Unlike conventional techniques for making ethanol from cyanobacteria or algae which need large quantities of water, Proterro’s system grows the bacteria on water-soaked fabric. “The organisms don’t need to be submerged, just fed with a trickle of water,” says Kef Kasdin, Proterro’s CEO. The company has already built prototype bioreactors.
To make economic sense, the sugar has to be produced cheaply, and this means much less water used and much less biomass. Although Proterro has already raised $5 million in venture funding since 2008, some scientists are skeptical, saying that the sugar produced by cyanobacteria is either subject to other predator organisms living in water, or that Proterro would better stick to the old biofuel-producing technologies for a better chance of success, just to quote a few.
My guess is Proterro is doing the right thing – researching sometimes means breaking apart from old technologies and thinking outside the box, even if it’s about bacteria. On the other hand, genetically modifying microorganisms and then releasing them into the open could sometimes yield unexpected results, besides sugar.