Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Brewing fuel?

The post below includes an extract from a story in the Washington Post. That same story discusses some of the potential products.
LS9 Inc., a company in San Carlos, Calif., is already using E. coli bacteria that have been reprogrammed with synthetic DNA to produce a fuel alternative from a diet of corn syrup and sugar cane. So efficient are the bugs' synthetic metabolisms that LS9 predicts it will be able to sell the fuel for just $1.25 a gallon.

At a DuPont plant in Tennessee, other semi-synthetic bacteria are living on cornstarch and making the chemical 1,3 propanediol, or PDO. Millions of pounds of the stuff are being spun and woven into high-tech fabrics (DuPont's chief executive wears a pinstripe suit made of it), putting the bug-begotten chemical on track to become the first $1 billion biotech product that is not a pharmaceutical.

Engineers at DuPont studied blueprints of E. coli's metabolism and used synthetic DNA to help the bacteria make PDO far more efficiently than could have been done with ordinary genetic engineering.

"If you want to sell it at a dollar a gallon … you need every bit of efficiency you can muster," said DuPont's Pierce. "So we're running these bugs to their limits."

Yet another application is in medicine, where synthetic DNA is allowing bacteria and yeast to produce the malaria drug artemisinin far more efficiently than it is made in plants, its natural source.

Bugs such as these will seem quaint, scientists say, once fully synthetic organisms are brought on line to work 24/7 on a range of tasks, from industrial production to chemical cleanups.
Production of drugs and other chemicals is fine. But I have a hard time understanding the thinking behind fuel generation. After all, energy is energy. It doesn't get created for free. If a "bug" can convert corn syrup and sugar cane to fuel, it must start off with the corn syrup, which must be produced somehow. Ultimately, the source of any bio-fuel energy is the sun. It's possible that the path from sun to plant to genetically produced fuel is more efficient than current routes, but the most efficient route is to use the sun as an energy source.

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