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Bugs to biofuels

Will microorganisms help lead us to a green future? Scientists, and venture capitalists, hope so.

March 15, 2008

The latest news about climate change is so alarming (the right wing would say alarmist) as to make many people want to plant their aching heads in the sand. Some scientists using advanced computer models now argue that if we want to stop the Earth from warming, the amount of carbon we should be emitting is ... none. None? As in, zero? As in, shutting down the global industrial economy? After all, global energy demand is expected to accelerate until at least 2020. Yet attempts even to slow the rate of increase of carbon emissions have paralyzed world politics for more than a decade.

Faced with the choice between planetary disaster and the end of modern life as we know it, most of us feel powerless to do much more than change our lightbulbs and hope that some unseen genius somewhere figures this out before we sizzle. But many touted new energy technologies turn out to have fatal detractions, starting with the fact that ethanol production is gobbling up global food supplies.

We can and must conserve vastly more. A McKinsey & Co. study calculates that investing $170 billion per year in energy-saving technologies would generate $900 billion in savings by 2020 -- a 17% return on investment. Still, Americans have a cultural predisposition to yearn for a scientific paradigm shift that will usher in a new era of cheap energy and save the planet too. So here is one scenario to root for: genetically engineered bacteria that eat carbon dioxide and excrete biofuels.

Major bacteria news was announced this week at the University of Maryland, where scientists discovered that a bacterium found 20 years ago in Chesapeake Bay is able to decompose just about anything. That includes cellulose, which is indigestible to most bugs. Scientists, venture capitalists and the state's governor are betting these microorganisms can be deployed to turn trash -- not food -- into ethanol.

Even more promising is the bacteria news from UCLA, where scientists have genetically engineered a strain of E. coli that secretes high-octane alcohols. Why the bacteria are not poisoned by the alcohol is a mystery, but scientists believe they could be made to synthesize biofuels with properties more like those of gasoline. In the lab, the bacteria are fed glucose. But microbiologist James Liao is working on splicing the genes from the alcohol-secreting bacteria into other strains (including marine bacteria) that absorb carbon dioxide and use sunlight to produce cell mass. In theory, these bacteria could be farmed to turn global warming gases into an efficient fuel.

Venture capitalists have put their money where their hope is. So should we.

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