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Engineered bacterium can produce ethanol directly from seaweed.
19 January 2012
Bioengineers have devised a way to produce ethanol from seaweed, laying the groundwork for a biofuel that doesn't sacrifice food crops.
Yasuo Yoshikuni and his colleagues at the Bio Architecture Lab in Berkeley, California, engineered the bacterium Escherichia coli so that it could digest brown seaweed and produce ethanol. Their work is published in Science today1.
Yoshikuni says that his group chose brown seaweed because it was both sustainable and scalable. “Seaweed is already produced in huge quantities around the world without taking up any fresh water or arable land.” Brown seaweed also grows faster than red or green seaweed, with varieties such as the giant kelp, found off the coast of California, growing by up to a metre a day.
Many researchers are exploring ways to produce ethanol without using food crops such as sugar cane or maize (corn), and have turned to different feedstocks including switchgrass, the succulent plant jatropha, cyanobacteria and green algae. However, producing biofuels from sugar cane or maize not only detracts from food supplies, but also takes up huge areas of arable land. In the case of maize, more energy is required for growing and harvesting the crop than can be gained from the ethanol produced.
But producing biofuels from seaweed has so far proved difficult for bioengineers. Seaweed produces four kinds of sugars — laminarin, mannitol, alginate and cellulose. The biggest fraction in brown seaweed is alginate, which is a complex polysaccharide and tricky for microbes to digest.
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