Researchers at MIT in Boston genetically modified a soil bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha. When stressed, it usually stops growing and put all its energy into making complex carbon compounds. Now scientists at MIT have manipulated its genes to persuade it to make fuel, in the form of, a kind of alcohol called isobutanol that can be directly substituted for, or blended with, petrol.
The researcher behind the project even hopes it could be used to turn emissions into fuel.
Christopher Brigham, a research scientist in MIT’s biology department, is leading the project.
He said that in the microbe’s natural state, when its source of essential nutrients such as nitrate or phosphate is restricted, ‘it will go into carbon-storage mode,’ essentially storing away food for later use when it senses that resources are limited.
‘What it does is take whatever carbon is available, and stores it in the form of a polymer, which is similar in its properties to a lot of petroleum-based plastics,’ Brigham says.
By knocking out a few genes, inserting a gene from another organism and tinkering with the expression of other genes, Brigham and his colleagues found they could redirect the microbe to make fuel instead of plastic.
The same microbe could also potentially turn almost any source of carbon, including agricultural waste or municipal waste, into useful fuel.