Neil Savage at MIT’s Technology Review:
The biofuel of the future could well be gasoline. That’s the hope of one biotech startup that on Monday described for the first time how it is coaxing bacteria into producing hydrocarbons that could be processed into fuels like those made from petroleum.
LS9, a company based in San Carlos, CA, and founded by geneticist George Church, of Harvard Medical School, and plant biologist Chris Somerville, of Stanford University, had previously said that it was working on what it calls “renewable petroleum.” But at a Society for Industrial Microbiology conference on Monday, the company began speaking more openly about what it has accomplished: it has genetically engineered various bacteria, including E. coli, to custom-produce hydrocarbon chains.
To do this, the company is employing tools from the field of synthetic biology to modify the genetic pathways that bacteria, plants, and animals use to make fatty acids, one of the main ways that organisms store energy. Fatty acids are chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms strung together in a particular arrangement, with a carboxylic acid group made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen attached at one end. Take away the acid, and you’re left with a hydrocarbon that can be made into fuel.
“I am very impressed with what they’re doing,” says James Collins, codirector of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology at Boston University. He calls the company’s use of synthetic biology and systems biology to engineer hydrocarbon-producing bacteria “cutting edge.”