Ethanol is but one of the products the bacterium can be taught to produce. Others include butanol and isobutanol (transportation fuels comparable to ethanol), as well as other fuels and chemicals-using biomass as an alternative to petroleum.
Janet Westpheling, a professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of genetics, and her team of researchers — all members of U.S. Department of Energy-funded BioEnergy Science Center in which the University of Georgia is a key partner — succeeded in genetically engineering the organism C. bescii to deconstruct un-pretreated plant biomass.
Pretreatment of the biomass feedstock — nonfood crops such as switchgrass and miscanthus — is the step of breaking down plant cell walls before fermentation into ethanol. This pretreatment step has long been the economic bottleneck hindering fuel production from lignocellulosic biomass feedstocks.
The UGA research group engineered a synthetic pathway into the organism, introducing genes from other anaerobic bacterium that produce ethanol, and constructed a pathway in the organism to produce ethanol directly.
“Now, without any pretreatment, we can simply take switchgrass, grind it up, add a low-cost, minimal salts medium and get ethanol out the other end,” Westpheling said. “This is the first step toward an industrial process that is economically feasible.”
Consider the First Source!
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word choreographed an assembly of amino acids into an exquisite array of specific proteins. Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.” In so doing God demonstrated a penchant for genomic writing, preceeded by an amazing series of prebiotic events, in a highly orchestrated presentation of evolutionary overcontrol.