E. Coli Used To Turn Seaweed Into Ethanol


Our planet’s oceans are our most precious resource, and as it turns out, a great source of energy as well. From algae to tidal turbines to seaweed, scientists the world over are looking to the oceans for answers to tomorrow’s energy questions. Researchers at Bio Architecture Labs, Inc. and the University of Washington at Seattle have developed a strain of E. coli that can turn seaweed into ethanol at just-above room temperature.One of the main concerns with ethanol is that many processes require extreme heat to break down the lingin in biomass like corn or woodchips. Lignin gives land plants their structural rigidity, and present a major obstacle to ethanol conversion. But seaweed and algae lack lignin, making the process of converting these sea plants into ethanol a much less energy-intensive process.

In the words of synthetic biologist Yasuo Yoshikuni, one of the reserachers working on the project, seaweed has a very “exotic” sugar inside it. Yoshikuni isolated the genes inside the kobmu seaweed plant and inserted them into E. coli. They then mixed the mutant E. coli with some ground up kombu seaweed, and left it alone for two days.

At the end of two days, 5% of the kombu mixture now contained ethanol and water (though the article does not mention what percentage was water, and what was ethanol.) This was done at temperatures between 77 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, just above room temperature. Considering that many ethanol processes require temperatures much, much higher, converting seaweed into ethanol using E. coli would be a much less energy-intensive process. The researchers estimate that by growing this type of seaweed on less than 1% of America’s territorial waters, we could reduce our dependency on oil by approximately 1%.

Not exactly encouraging numbers, though researchers estimate that algae-based fuels could cut foreign oil usage by as much as 17%. OriginOil has developed an algae-based crude oil that can be refined at America’s existing refineries also gives algae/seaweed a leg up on other alternatives right now.Researchers the world over are investigating E. coli’s ability to turn different materials into different fuels, from diesel to J16 jet fuel. It’s another step forward to be sure, and there’s a lot more to the world’s oceans than just the water on America’s coasts. But is growing fuel in the ocean a good idea? That is for wiser men than me to hash out, though I’d proceed carefully with this one.

Source: Scientific American | Image: worldwildlifewonders via Shutterstock

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