Research Alters E. coli for Gains in Ethanol Production

Biotechnology and bugs may seem like two words that shouldn’t be in a sentence together, but a microbiology professor from the University of Florida (UF) thinks they could be beneficial to ethanol production.

“With the cost of imported oil reaching record highs, we can use this new technology to produce ethanol for about $1.30 a gallon,” Microbiology Professor Lonnie Ingram said. “Ethanol will stretch the nation’s fuel supply and make gasoline burn more cleanly. Gasoline-ethanol blends also boost the octane rating of automotive fuel.” Ingram works at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and has genetically engineered E. coli bacteria, the bug part of his ethanol equation, to produce fuel ethanol from farm wastes such as corn stems, cobs and leaves. A related technology can be used to produce biodegradable plastics from biomass. He spoke about the technology in front of Congress, and stated that the genetically engineered E. coli bacteria is capable of converting all sugar types found in plant cell walls into fuel ethanol. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and DOE indicates that more than one billion tons of biomass can be produced on a sustainable basis each year. Converting this to fuel ethanol could replace half of all imported petroleum in the United States. Greg Luli, vice president of research for BC International’s laboratory at the Sid Martin Biotechnology Center in Florida, said the firm plans to build a 30-million-gallon biomass-to-ethanol plant in Jennings, Louisiana. The plant’s technology and process will be based upon Ingram’s genetically engineered bacteria. Until now, all of the world’s fuel ethanol has been produced from high-value materials such as Cornstarch and cane syrup using yeast fermentations. In 2005, more than 4.5 billion gallons of fuel ethanol will be manufactured from cornstarch and used as automotive fuel. Ingram said his technology should further expand ethanol production by converting celluloic waste into fuel ethanol, more than doubling current ethanol production. The bioconversion technology was selected by the U.S. Department of Commerce to become Landmark Patent No. 5,000,000; and is being commercialized with assistance from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Massachusetts-based BC International holds exclusive rights to use and license the UF-engineered bacteria.
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