E. coli bacteria has been notorious for causing severe food poisoning. In bio-engineering field E. coli also famous of its ability to produce the long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms found in petroleum, called fatty acids.
A research team from Harvard University's Wyss Institute, U.S.A, is on track to transform E. coli into a producer of biofuels, pharmaceuticals, plastics and just about anything else that is presently made from petroleum precursors.
According to Wyss Institute, the tough part in the research is to get E. coli to produce fatty acids that are just the right length. Long chains containing more than 12 carbons are energy-dense but too gooey. Chains that are too short don’t store enough energy and vaporize too easily. Hence, the aim is to produce chains between 4 and 12 carbons long.
An 8-carbon chain called octanoate, or caprylic acid, has been produced by altering the metabolic pathway of E. coli that converts carbon from sugar into fatty acids. Try to imagine the pathway as a river, you can visualize the chain growing longer as it flows downstream. By genetically engineering the pathway to form “dams” or tighten up, you shorten the process and therefore, shorten the length of the chain.
Caprylic acid only gets you part of the way to biofuel, though. The team is now working on a process to convert octanoate to alcohols, which is just one chemical step away from octane.