E. coli is capable of producing a diesel substitute


Strains of E. coli bacteria are capable of producing a biofuel almost identical to diesel.

The importance of the discovery hinges around the idea of “drop-in” fuels — that existing technology which runs on diesel would not need to be modified in order to utilise the biofuel meaning the costs to business of switching energy sources would be minimal.

“Producing a commercial biofuel that can be used without needing to modify vehicles has been the goal of this project from the outset,” said Professor John Love from the University of Exeter’s Biosciences department.

“Replacing conventional diesel with a carbon neutral biofuel in commercial volumes would be a tremendous step towards meeting our target of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Global demand for energy is rising and a fuel that is independent of both global oil price fluctuations and political instability is an increasingly attractive prospect.”

The E. coli uses a natural oil production process to convert sugars into fats which are then used in the bacteria’s cell membrane. By genetically altering the E. coli the researchers were able to convert the sugars to the imitation fossil fuel (perhaps faux-sil fuel?) instead.

Unfortunately the process only yields tiny amounts of biodiesel at present meaning that before we can switch energy sources bioscientists will need to find a way to refine the process and produce industrial quantities of fuel.

The team at the University of Exeter received support for their project from multinational oil company, Shell. According to Rob Lee from Shell projects & technology: “While the technology still faces several hurdles to commercialisation, by exploring this new method of creating biofuel, along with other intelligent technologies, we hope they could help us to meet the challenges of limiting the rise in carbon dioxide emissions while responding to the growing global requirement for transport fuel.”