Scientists from the Arizona State University have genetically modified a photosynthetic microbe, called cyanobacteria, to self-destruct when it gathers enough fats and release them. They used cyanobacteria because they are easy to manipulate genetically and have a higher biofuel output capacity than any plant crops currently used to produce fuels.
Cyanobacteria have a protective set of outer membranes formed by multiple layers and helping it to live in harsh conditions (it makes the pond scum from your backyard swimming pool).
“The real costs involved in any biofuel production are harvesting the goodies and turning them into fuel,” said Roy Curtiss, director of the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology and professor in the School of Life Sciences. “This whole system that we have developed is a means to a green recovery of materials not requiring energy dependent physical or chemical processes.”
The Cyanobacteria have been “injected” with genes taken from one of their bacterial enemies, called a bacteriaphage, that infect the cyanobacteria, causing them to pop like a baloon. The researchers exchanged parts from bacteriaphages that infect E.coli and salmonella, added nickel to the growth media, where the inserted genes produced enzymes that slowly dissolved the cyanobacteria multi-layer from the inside out, killing it and releasing the energy-rich fats that are to be transformed into biofuels.
The project has received some $5 million in funding from the state of Arizona, since it is one of the most sunshine-abundant areas in the U.S., and warm temperatures favor the growing of cyanobacteria.
So now we have resorted to killing bacteria to generate biofuels, by genetic engineering. What next?