Oil from... bacteria!

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Oil from... bacteria!

Postby iop » Sun Aug 01, 2010 3:13 pm UTC

Science just published an article where researchers report that they have managed to modify bacteria so that they excrete hydrocarbons. If they manage to do that large-scale, we won't have to worry about oil running out anymore. Also, this "oil"-production is carbon-neutral(-ish), so we can happily burn it away. There is hope for the future!

Spoiler:
Alkanes, the major constituents of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel, are naturally produced by diverse species; however, the genetics and biochemistry behind this biology have remained elusive. Here we describe the discovery of an alkane biosynthesis pathway from cyanobacteria. The pathway consists of an acyl–acyl carrier protein reductase and an aldehyde decarbonylase, which together convert intermediates of fatty acid metabolism to alkanes and alkenes. The aldehyde decarbonylase is related to the broadly functional nonheme diiron enzymes. Heterologous expression of the alkane operon in Escherichia coli leads to the production and secretion of C13 to C17 mixtures of alkanes and alkenes. These genes and enzymes can now be leveraged for the simple and direct conversion of renewable raw materials to fungible hydrocarbon fuels.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Kulantan » Sun Aug 01, 2010 3:17 pm UTC

I've been waiting for a long time to see this one :D. +1 hope for the future.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby ++$_ » Sun Aug 01, 2010 6:24 pm UTC

Cyanobacteria save the day once again!

I've also been hoping for a while to see this. I imagine the efficiency is pretty low, but maybe that could be brought up a little. Plus, even at a relatively low efficiency it could still be useful in generating hydrocarbons so that we can still make plastics after we run out of oil.

Also, to pick a nit from the original post, these guys are secreting hydrocarbons, not carbohydrates.

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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Dark Avorian » Sun Aug 01, 2010 6:27 pm UTC

The human race wins again?
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby 4=5 » Sun Aug 01, 2010 9:03 pm UTC

What makes oil wonderful is that it lets us cut our bonds from the sun. That aside, this is an interesting development.

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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Steroid » Sun Aug 01, 2010 10:10 pm UTC

Let's not count our E. Coli before they're hatched. Exactly what do they consume in order to produce the Alkanes?

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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby mmmcannibalism » Sun Aug 01, 2010 10:12 pm UTC

Awesome*

*if it actually works out
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby The Reaper » Sun Aug 01, 2010 10:13 pm UTC


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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby ++$_ » Sun Aug 01, 2010 10:15 pm UTC

Steroid wrote:Let's not count our E. Coli before they're hatched. Exactly what do they consume in order to produce the Alkanes?
Schirmer et al. wrote:The recombinant cells were grown at 32°C or 37°C in
M9 mineral medium or in a modified mineral medium of the following composition: 6g/L Na2HPO4, 3 g/L
KH2PO4, 0.5 g/L NaCl, 2 g/L NH4Cl, 0.25 g/L MgSO4 x 7 H2O, 11 mg/L CaCl2, 27 mg/L Fe3Cl x 6 H2O, 2 mg/L
ZnCl x 4 H2O, 2 mg/L Na2MoO4 x 2 H2O, 1.9 mg/L CuSO4 x 5 H2O, 0.5 mg/L H3BO3, 1 mg/L thiamine, 200
mM Bis‐Tris (pH 7.25) and 0.1% (v/v) Triton‐X100. The cultures contained 3% glucose as carbon source
and were supplemented with 100 μg/ml spectinomycin and 100 μg/ml carbenicillin, and were induced
with 1 mM IPTG when they reached an OD600 of 1.0‐1.2.
Bis-Tris is a buffer, and Triton X-100 is a surfactant. So it's just a normal mineral medium.

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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby skeptical scientist » Sun Aug 01, 2010 10:30 pm UTC

Why is this any better than corn ethanol, or other sources of biofuel? Biofuels have largely turned out to be not terribly helpful, or at least of controversial utility, in reducing our dependency on oil drilling and our greenhouse gas emissions. Is there any reason to believe this is even as good as other biofuels, let alone good enough to overcome the significant shortcomings that other biofuels have had?
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Kyrn » Mon Aug 02, 2010 12:18 am UTC

4=5 wrote:What makes oil wonderful is that it lets us cut our bonds from the sun. That aside, this is an interesting development.

Unless it's geothermal or lunar tides based, all other sources of energy indirectly comes from the sun (Geothermal indirectly comes from the creation of the planet itself, which the sun is not wholly responsible for).

I do not see how a reasonable efficient method of converting energy (and some matter) into oil constitutes as cutting out bonds form the sun.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby mmmcannibalism » Mon Aug 02, 2010 12:55 am UTC

skeptical scientist wrote:Why is this any better than corn ethanol, or other sources of biofuel? Biofuels have largely turned out to be not terribly helpful, or at least of controversial utility, in reducing our dependency on oil drilling and our greenhouse gas emissions. Is there any reason to believe this is even as good as other biofuels, let alone good enough to overcome the significant shortcomings that other biofuels have had?


My first guess would be that you don't have to waste food for this, and better chances to produce industrialy
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Kulantan » Mon Aug 02, 2010 1:04 am UTC

Also, all our infrastructure is already optimized for petrol. So no change there would be needed.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby The Reaper » Mon Aug 02, 2010 1:37 am UTC

Kulantan wrote:Also, all our infrastructure is already optimized for petrol. So no change there would be needed.

Although, change to the infrasctructure (namely: upgrading) WOULD be a good thing.

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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Kyrn » Mon Aug 02, 2010 2:59 am UTC

The Reaper wrote:
Kulantan wrote:Also, all our infrastructure is already optimized for petrol. So no change there would be needed.

Although, change to the infrasctructure (namely: upgrading) WOULD be a good thing.

I play RTS games, I know what I'm talking about. :3

Not if the cost of upgrading outweighs any benefits one would gain.

If you play RTS games, you should know what I'm talking about. :P
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby The Reaper » Mon Aug 02, 2010 4:55 am UTC

Kyrn wrote:
The Reaper wrote:
Kulantan wrote:Also, all our infrastructure is already optimized for petrol. So no change there would be needed.

Although, change to the infrasctructure (namely: upgrading) WOULD be a good thing.

I play RTS games, I know what I'm talking about. :3

Not if the cost of upgrading outweighs any benefits one would gain.

If you play RTS games, you should know what I'm talking about. :P

Depends on if you're playing for long term or short term. Infrastructure upgrades that happen now may enable better living (aka survival) in the future.

Besides, cars that move really quietly are awesome. EMBRACE THE FUTURE.

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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Kyrn » Mon Aug 02, 2010 5:36 am UTC

The Reaper wrote:
Kyrn wrote:Not if the cost of upgrading outweighs any benefits one would gain.

If you play RTS games, you should know what I'm talking about. :P

Depends on if you're playing for long term or short term. Infrastructure upgrades that happen now may enable better living (aka survival) in the future.

Besides, cars that move really quietly are awesome. EMBRACE THE FUTURE.

Depends on how many levels of upgrades there are. All infrastructure upgrades comes with a short term standard of living penalty. Often it's useful to wait out for the next big upgrade instead of paying for all upgrades.

I embrace the future, by taking subway trains. :P
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Zamfir » Mon Aug 02, 2010 5:55 am UTC

Kyrn wrote:
I embrace the future, by taking subway trains. :P

Subways are several decades older than cars. :p

I don't really see the infrastructure advantage. Alcohol burns pretty well in standard engines, with at most a few tweaks. Unless these bacteria produce perfect 95 octane gasoline, you will need similar tweaks before a car runs on their produce too.

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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Kyrn » Mon Aug 02, 2010 6:09 am UTC

Zamfir wrote:
Kyrn wrote:
I embrace the future, by taking subway trains. :P

Subways are several decades older than cars. :p

I don't really see the infrastructure advantage. Alcohol burns pretty well in standard engines, with at most a few tweaks. Unless these bacteria produce perfect 95 octane gasoline, you will need similar tweaks before a car runs on their produce too.

A quick check on Wikipedia states otherwise.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Car (1885)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapid_transit (1890)
Subways in general may be almost as old as cars, but there's more to subways than being electric trains, just as there's more to cars than being 4 wheeled gasoline powered vehicles. Subways for instance has went driverless much earlier than cars.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Zamfir » Mon Aug 02, 2010 8:45 am UTC

Uhm, the article says the London Underground dates from 1863.

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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Kyrn » Mon Aug 02, 2010 9:09 am UTC

Zamfir wrote:Uhm, the article says the London Underground dates from 1863.

I'm defining it as "electric passenger railway" as mentioned at the very top of the page, which the London Underground was not. (it wasn't electric)

If I wanted to be nit-picky, I only took in the first car designs to be commercially feasible. Workable cars started coming about in 1806.

Alternatively, I can state that subways went electric before cars, and made it an industrial standard. Way more future-tech than cars, which are still mostly running on gasoline/diesel.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby SlyReaper » Mon Aug 02, 2010 9:51 am UTC

Kyrn wrote:I'm defining it as

Did you know black is white? It's true because I'm defining black as the lightest possible shade of grey.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby netcrusher88 » Mon Aug 02, 2010 10:01 am UTC

Intra-region rail transit was huge in the US just like it is in Europe before a combination of the GI bill turning the landscape into suburbs and auto manufacturer propaganda post-WWII killed it. There's a post on Damn Interesting or something about it.

iop wrote:Also, this "oil"-production is carbon-neutral(-ish), so we can happily burn it away.

Define carbon-neutral. The production itself may not produce waste carbon but the burning it sure will contribute to the greenhouse gas problem. Unless they've got some magical way of yanking carbon oxides from the upper atmosphere and converting them into a substance these bacteria can process, this isn't helpful.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby skeptical scientist » Mon Aug 02, 2010 11:01 am UTC

mmmcannibalism wrote:My first guess would be that you don't have to waste food for this, and better chances to produce industrialy

Yes you do:
the abstract wrote:The pathway consists of an acyl–acyl carrier protein reductase and an aldehyde decarbonylase, which together convert intermediates of fatty acid metabolism to alkanes and alkenes.

Where did you think the energy was coming from?
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Vaniver » Mon Aug 02, 2010 7:13 pm UTC

netcrusher88 wrote:Define carbon-neutral. The production itself may not produce waste carbon but the burning it sure will contribute to the greenhouse gas problem. Unless they've got some magical way of yanking carbon oxides from the upper atmosphere and converting them into a substance these bacteria can process, this isn't helpful.
It's not magical; it's called breathing. This is the equivalent of moving from mined sugar to grown sugar.

What they've done so far is just the Haber process: now they need a Bosch to come along and make it economical, and then Humans Win.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Kyro » Mon Aug 02, 2010 11:47 pm UTC

Schirmer et al. wrote: The cultures contained 3% glucose as carbon source

So we can start producing wheat, rice, and potato ethanol... Personally I'm much more optimistic about algae for renewable liquid fuel production.

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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Kyrn » Tue Aug 03, 2010 12:21 am UTC

SlyReaper wrote:
Kyrn wrote:I'm defining it as

Did you know black is white? It's true because I'm defining black as the lightest possible shade of grey.

I'm taking the definition ON THE TOP OF THE WIKIPEDIA PAGE.

It's not my fault they contradict themselves a few lines down.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby SlyReaper » Tue Aug 03, 2010 11:24 am UTC

Kyrn wrote:
SlyReaper wrote:
Kyrn wrote:I'm defining it as

Did you know black is white? It's true because I'm defining black as the lightest possible shade of grey.

I'm taking the definition ON THE TOP OF THE WIKIPEDIA PAGE.

It's not my fault they contradict themselves a few lines down.


I'm just saying that it's generally not a good idea to support an argument with "I'm defining X as...", because it tends to raise the ghastly spectre of "the definition wars". To me, "subway" means any public transportation system that runs underground, not just electric ones. It just so happens that most (all?) modern subways run on electricity.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Fume Troll » Tue Aug 03, 2010 11:38 am UTC

Do we really have enough spare biomass lying about to convert into hydrocarbons? Or enough land available to dedicate to its production?

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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Kulantan » Tue Aug 03, 2010 12:26 pm UTC

Algae.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Levelheaded » Tue Aug 03, 2010 5:54 pm UTC

This is great, but I've been hearing about how in just a few years all of our cars would be running on algae / bacteria that craps out oil since 1995.

So far, the biggest changes I've seen in fuel is E85 and LNG at my local gas station(s) and some biodiesel. The Prius makes a statement, even if conventionally powering them would be better overall. I guess they do have hybrid city busses (which actually do make sense) around here now, so that's...something.

I'm sure it will be great whenever 'they' figure out how to be commercially viable, but for now algae / bacteria fuel seems best for powering a steady stream of grant money.

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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Kyrn » Wed Aug 04, 2010 12:15 am UTC

Kulantan wrote:Algae.

Algae is not exactly spare biomass, unless you want to starve the oceans of oxygen. Easily grown biomass however, is a separate point.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby netcrusher88 » Wed Aug 04, 2010 1:30 am UTC

So guys...
netcrusher88 wrote:The production itself may not produce waste carbon but the burning it sure will contribute to the greenhouse gas problem.

I mean, shit. It's all well and good that we might have a way to synthesize some oil-like substance. And we certainly have the disposable biomass to feed it. That'll be great if the world's oil reserves run out, which is looking less than unlikely at this point. But it does absolutely nothing about the issue that burning oil kind of really fucks the environment.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Kulantan » Wed Aug 04, 2010 1:38 am UTC

netcrusher88 wrote:So guys...
netcrusher88 wrote:The production itself may not produce waste carbon but the burning it sure will contribute to the greenhouse gas problem.

I mean, shit. It's all well and good that we might have a way to synthesize some oil-like substance. And we certainly have the disposable biomass to feed it. That'll be great if the world's oil reserves run out, which is looking less than unlikely at this point. But it does absolutely nothing about the issue that burning oil kind of really fucks the environment.

Huh? You mean the oil made form the disposable biomass that took in carbon dioxide to build/feed itself through a process called photosynthesis that just so happens to take in as much carbon as burning the plant (as oil) releases?
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby netcrusher88 » Wed Aug 04, 2010 1:45 am UTC

The disposable biomass that does nothing about, oh, carbon monoxide, ozone, and various other unpleasant byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion, yes.

Look, this isn't magic. We're talking converting trees or algae or whatever extraneous plant matter we can get our hands on. The biosphere in its current form is incapable of keeping up with the amount of pollution we create now, this is well established. Turning more of it into oil isn't going to help.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Vaniver » Wed Aug 04, 2010 1:52 am UTC

netcrusher88 wrote:The disposable biomass that does nothing about, oh, carbon monoxide, ozone, and various other unpleasant byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion, yes.

Look, this isn't magic. We're talking converting trees or algae or whatever extraneous plant matter we can get our hands on. The biosphere in its current form is incapable of keeping up with the amount of pollution we create now, this is well established. Turning more of it into oil isn't going to help.
Are CO and O3 really that unpleasant byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion? I mean, it wasn't that long ago that we had desperately low values of O3, and CO seems to be a problem an order of magnitude lower than managing CO2.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby netcrusher88 » Wed Aug 04, 2010 2:10 am UTC

Vaniver wrote:Are CO and O3 really that unpleasant byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion? I mean, it wasn't that long ago that we had desperately low values of O3, and CO seems to be a problem an order of magnitude lower than managing CO2.

I don't think CO is as big a thing as CO2 on a global, greenhouse gas, climate change kind of thing. But it contributes to pollution. And it goes on to react in the atmosphere to produce a lot of the components in smog, including ozone.

While we do have a problem with the ozone layer, O3 produced at the surface isn't going to get up to the stratosphere. It's going to hang out at ground level and be toxic, corrosive, and generally useless for as long as it lasts, and if it lasts long enough make its way into the upper troposphere and contribute to the greenhouse effect. Wikipedia tells me I'm wrong about it being a direct combustion byproduct though.
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby ++$_ » Wed Aug 04, 2010 2:15 am UTC

Vaniver wrote:Are CO and O3 really that unpleasant byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion? I mean, it wasn't that long ago that we had desperately low values of O3, and CO seems to be a problem an order of magnitude lower than managing CO2.
Tropospheric ozone doesn't get into the stratosphere readily, so it isn't helpful at all to the ozone layer and it is a pretty serious pollutant down here. That said, your main point is pretty much right: catalytic converters and scrubbers of various types have significantly reduced the problems caused by non-CO2 emissions from oil. We don't really have to worry about them nearly as much as we have to worry about the CO2.

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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby Kyrn » Wed Aug 04, 2010 3:36 am UTC

++$_ wrote:
Vaniver wrote:Are CO and O3 really that unpleasant byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion? I mean, it wasn't that long ago that we had desperately low values of O3, and CO seems to be a problem an order of magnitude lower than managing CO2.
Tropospheric ozone doesn't get into the stratosphere readily, so it isn't helpful at all to the ozone layer and it is a pretty serious pollutant down here. That said, your main point is pretty much right: catalytic converters and scrubbers of various types have significantly reduced the problems caused by non-CO2 emissions from oil. We don't really have to worry about them nearly as much as we have to worry about the CO2.

That being said, the advantage of using self-produced oil is that no additional CO2 gets pumped into the atmosphere, since the creation of said biomass uses up near equivalent amounts of CO2 (the difference being mixed somewhere with CO and maybe other hydrocarbons somewhere).
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Re: Oil from... bacteria!

Postby CorruptUser » Wed Aug 04, 2010 4:04 am UTC

Actually, algae is extremely plentiful, especially in the Gulf of Mexico (no, this is not about the oil spill). Fertilizer that runs off from the farms along the Mississippi drains to there, causing massive algae blooms large enough to wipe out whole sections of the sea life every single year (as algae dies, it sinks, and the rotting process consumes the precious oxygen in the lower parts of the ocean, causing massive death and more rotting and more oxygen depletion, et cetera).

Algae based oil sources would help the environment in so many different ways. The problem is of course collecting it. Massive skimmers with miles-wide nets? Powered by diesel?

Speaking of this, wasn't algae the official enviro-friendly food-source in 'Soylent Green'?


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