E. coli has the intestinal fortitude needed to help produce anything from pharmaceuticals to industrial chemicals.
It is a bacterial workhorse that is a normal part of healthy human and animal intestines. But, because it is the most-studied organism in the world, the portfolio of products E. coli helps to produce continues to grow.
Today, scientists from Renewable Energy Group and ExxonMobil are using E. coli to advance science that will accelerate the conversion of sugars derived from non-edible, raw materials into low-emission biodiesel.
The goal of this research is to create a new generation of fuels that is scalable and affordable for mass consumption.
This process involves two milestones: the efficient conversion of non-edible biomass to a mixture of sugars, and using E. coli as a “catalyst” to convert those sugars into a lower-emission fuel.
So, what are catalysts, and why are they important? A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction, such as the chemical transformation of sugar to biodiesel. E. coli is ideal for this purpose because it often carries catalysts. It also grows fast, and we deeply understand its physiology and metabolism. For these reasons, today it is used in several large-scale industrial processes.
The E. coli strain at the heart of this project is similar to the vast majority of naturally occurring E. coli found in human intestines. Most are largely benign or even beneficial for a healthy body.
In the lab, the E. coli catalyst is being fine-tuned for the conversion process. The bacteria need modification to tolerate byproducts formed during the conversion of biomass and to improve the ability to use non-food-based sugars.
These sugars are not what are found in a pantry or in the kitchen. Instead, microbiologists are fermenting renewable cellulosic sugars from sources like agricultural waste, such as corn husks, into biofuels.
The work, which started more than a year ago, continues to develop and, if successful, will allow E. coli to continue to prove its usefulness as the bacterial workhorse.
Michigan State University, What you need to know about E. coli, Aug. 2017
Center for Disease Control
Energy Factor, Plant Power, July 17, 2017
Biofuelsdigest.com, ExxonMobil, REG tie-up to take cellulosic biodiesel to scale, Jan. 2016