Can Genetic Modification Really Lead to Renewable Fuel?

Christopher Brigham

Amanda Warren
Activist Post

Despite its faults and what it is typically used for, we have to admit that genetic modification is quite an advancement. Can it be corralled to help mankind, similar to the way Tesla technology could have been used more fully to benefit the world?

A lowly, seemingly ordinary bacteria in the soil has been found to use its energy to create complex carbon compounds when under stress. Ralstonia eutropha can convert carbon into its own bioplastic; biodegradable plastic.

Instead of the bacterium making plastic, Christopher Brigham and his MIT biology research team modified the genes, knocking out one and replacing a few others to train the bacteria to create isobutanol alcohol. The alcohol can be easily collected without too much hassle having to filter out the original bacteria.

This could be an amazing kind of alchemy indeed – isobutanol can be blended with or even completely replace gasoline.

It’s already used in some racing cars. Currently, ethanol is the touted advancement in fuel, but is only renewable to a point. The use of corn-based ethanol is partially blamed for rising food prices because of the influx of demand for more corn; and it is not the most reliable source during droughts. Many argue that its production is wasting space that could be used to grow edible food.

Furthermore, Brigham is now working on getting the microbe to use carbon dioxide as its carbon source in order to create fuel out of emissions. During the team’s lab tests, the bacteria was using sugar – that is, fructose – as their carbon food source, but it could potentially clean up farming and municipal waste and turn it into fuel.  Last month, his paper on his current work with the bacteria was published in Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology journal.

Like a bear storing fat during hibernation, the bacteria in its natural conditions will store carbons when its basic food like nitrate or phosphate is unavailable. He says:

What it does is take whatever carbon is available, and stores it in the form of a polymer, which is similar in its properties to a lot of petroleum-based plastics. (Source)

The team has had long-term success in modifying the genes to change carbon into isobutanol and has projected they can garner large amounts, quicker production and are planning to design bioreactors to use industrial magnitude. Other companies are currently researching ways to produce isobutonol for fuel or to feed chemical production.

One red flag that raises a concern, however, is that the work was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E).

Would they allow an advancement such as this to relieve the burden of rising fuel prices and environmental devastation? And what is the ultimate price tag?

It is unclear what this research is costing the taxpayers and where it will ultimately lead. Also, in order to get the fuel, we are still locked into dependency. And it looks like isobutanol production is already falling to corporate dogs – DuPont and BP succeeded in tripping up new companies to prevent them from shipping to new customers this summer. It is now a heated race to the patent rights.

We already have seen examples of government colluding with Big Oil to keep innovation out of America through the suppression of technology that could lead to better fuel efficiency, so skepticism by taxpayers is certainly warranted.

Ideally, we’d live in a world that uses other types of advancements to run our vehicles – air, water, energy or moisture pulled from the air – you just name any one of many discoveries that could power a car, and it is likely to remain suppressed and hidden. Advancements that might not require more factories. While the factories obviously would create more jobs, paying little to nothing for fuel would be a financial boost we hardly dare to hope for today, it would be so grand. And, of course, some of the problems regarding genetic modification center around changing our ecology forever – unleashing something that could permanently alter the fabric of nature. But perhaps this is one department where science, technology, and nature could coexist and shine?

So it appears that technology itself, as a double-edged sword, can be used to actually benefit mankind if applied properly, but we must always keep in mind whose hands are steering the direction of innovation, as well as who is likely to benefit the most from its suppression or release.


Read other articles by Amanda Warren HERE

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