Monday, September 10, 2012

Drill, baby, drill -- microbial-style

Could the oil energy needed to light up this drill
come directly from soil bacteria instead of the soil?
Image credit: Obakeneko; via Wikimedia Commons
By Jeffrey Perkel, DXS tech editor

It’s no secret that America’s petroleum addiction is a problem in need of a solution. “Drill, baby, drill” notwithstanding, this country eventually will have to find a way to survive without low-cost oil – or at least, find another way to make it.

A recent MIT press release suggests one route to energy independence: soil bacteria. The release, Teaching a microbe to make fuel,” details a recent study from MIT graduate student Jingnan Lu, research scientist Christopher Brigham, and their lab director, Anthony Sinskey.

What Brigham, Lu, and their colleagues did was convince a soil bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha to turn carbon into gasoline –- specifically, the four-carbon molecules iso-butanol and 3-methyl-1-butanol.

Ralstonia eutropha bacteria in culture
How'd they do that? It was a simple matter of microbial engineering. As detailed in MIT’s description:
… 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,” [Brigham says,] 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 were able to redirect the microbe to make fuel instead of plastic.
That last sentence makes the process sound easier than it was. It took a full year of work to effect that transformation, Brigham tells me, and no wonder: Bacteria don’t normally make gasoline. But they do make amino acids, the protein building blocks that all living things need to survive. The team realized that Ralstonia bacteria create one particular group of amino acids (the so-called branched-chain amino acids) using chemical intermediates that they could coopt to turn sugar into fuel.

To realize that potential, Brigham and his colleagues first had to get Ralstonia to refocus its energies, literally. When stressed, the bacteria store carbon in a polymer--a chain of molecules--called PHB. The bacterium executes this particular biochemical program extremely effectively, cranking out enough polymer to account for more than 80% of the cell’s mass. Brigham and Lu had to redirect that enzymatic zeal towards gasoline instead. So, they knocked out the genes involved in building PHB.

Next, they added some missing chemical pieces. I said earlier that the branched-chain amino acid pathway includes an intermediate that could be used to make gasoline. To do that, the cells need a missing bit of hardware -- specifically, an enzyme to convert that chemical intermediate into something the gasoline-making enzymes can use. That enzyme is called KIVD, and Ralstonia does not make it. But another bacterium, Lactococcus lactis, does make it. Brigham and Lu borrowed the related bit of genetic material from Lactococcus lactis, expressed it in Ralstonia, and –- not much happened.

As University of California, Berkeley, biochemical engineer Jay Keasling explained to me, the cell in such situations is literally a chemical factory. For the factory to run smoothly, all the factory workers –- the enzymes -– need to be fully engaged at the right time. That won’t happen if one enzyme is cranking out lots of its product but others are not. Intermediate products will start piling up, reducing efficiency and potentially poisoning the cell.

In this case, with KIVD, the cells had all the necessary pieces to make gasoline. But they weren’t producing them at the same levels. In other words, the factory had more workers at one part of the assembly line than at others. As a result, productivity was relatively low (about 10 mg isobutanol per liter of culture). To boost that output, the researchers dialed up expression levels of several proteins to get them all in sync. They also shut down a handful of other chemical assembly lines, too, “carbon sinks” that could siphon off intermediates.

When all was said and done, the cells could produce about 310 mg of gasoline per liter of culture. That gas conveniently drifts into the culture medium surrounding the cells, from which it is easily extracted. Now, says Brigham, the trick is optimizing the process.

In the meantime, others are working towards the same goal. Researchers have considerable experience getting bacteria and yeast to produce compounds they don’t normally make -- the antimalarial drug artemisinin, for instance -– and microbial biofuel development is a research target at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (headed by Keasling), Synthetic Genomics, and LS9, among other places.

Often, those biofuel strategies rely on plants to produce their starting materials. And that’s the really cool part about Sinskey’s work: Ralstonia can eat almost anything, Brigham says, from carbon dioxide and organic acids to fatty acids and sugar. Brigham envisions coupling these organisms to waste streams, such that they can suck out the nutrients and turn them into fuel, no plants required.

Garbage in, fuel out: Now that’s a microbial trick I can get behind. 

(If you’re interested, you can read Brigham and Lu’s work here.)

Image: Christopher Brigham /

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