Bacteria Make Better Alcohol Fuels

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Modified E. coli produce long-chain alcohol fuels that have advantages over ethanol and butanol.
By Prachi Patel-Predd

By engineering the metabolic process of the common E. coli bacteria, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), have coaxed the microorganism into churning out useful long-chain alcohols that have potential as new biofuels. The bacteria-produced biofuels have between five and eight carbon atoms, compared with ethanol, which has two carbons.

The higher number of carbon atoms gives the biofuels as much energy per gallon as gasoline; by comparison, ethanol has 30 percent less energy than gasoline. And unlike ethanol, the new biofuels are compatible with today’s gasoline infrastructure, says James Liao, a UCLA chemical- and biomolecular-engineering professor, who headed the research. Since the long-chain alcohols do not absorb water as easily as ethanol, they could be transported around the country in existing petroleum pipelines.

The longer-chain alcohols also have an advantage over butanol, another alcohol-based biofuel, Liao says. The long-chain alcohols separate from water much more readily than butanol does, so they would not need energy-intensive distillation. Many companies, including DuPont and BP, are trying to commercialize a process to make the four-carbon alcohol butanol using microbes. Liao’s group has also engineered bugs that make butanol, and its technology has been licensed by Pasadena, CA, startup Gevo.

Liao and his colleagues use synthetic-biology tools to tinker with the amino acid metabolism of E. coli. All organisms produce a large number of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. The researchers reengineer this metabolic pathway so that toward the end, the precursor compounds that would normally get converted into amino acids instead turn into long-chain alcohols.

To do this, the researchers insert genes into the bacteria that make them produce unnaturally long amino acid precursor molecules that have more than six carbon atoms. They also engineer two genes–one from a type of yeast, one from a cheese-making bacterium–into the microbe. These modified genes produce two new proteins that can convert the precursors into five-to-eight-carbon alcohols.

Startups LS9 and Amyris Biotechnologies are already reengineering microbes to produce hydrocarbon fuels. Both plan to begin commercial production of their fuels by 2010.

As is the case with the new work, both LS9 and Amyris use synthetic biology, rewiring the metabolic systems of microbes by inserting genes from other organisms, redesigning known genes, and altering the expressions of proteins. But the approaches of Liao, LS9, and Amyris all target a different type of metabolic pathway. LS9 researchers have reengineered the fatty acid metabolism of E. coli, while Amyris is tinkering with the pathways that produce natural compounds known as isoprenoids.

Liao says that the amino acid pathway could have a slight advantage. It is naturally more active in bacteria, so toying with it could be more productive. “We think this is intrinsically a more efficient way to make these compounds,” he says. “So potentially, we’ll have a higher yield.”

The new long-chain alcohol fuel has grabbed the interest of companies, according to Liao. But there is still a long road ahead. One big challenge to overcome might be the long-chain alcohols’ toxicity to the bacteria, says Chris Somerville, director of the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. Ethanol is deadly to microbes at a concentration of around 14 percent. Butanol is even more toxic, killing microbes at about 2 percent concentration. This toxicity is one of the major problems facing butanol processes. Making a product that is relatively nontoxic to the culture, says Somerville, “is really important in getting the yield up.”

Liao does not think that toxicity will be a show stopper. He says that the bacteria could be engineered to make them more alcohol tolerant. But, he says, increasing the yield will be in the hands of the company that licenses the new technology.

Copyright Technology Review 2008.

Nobel Physicist Chosen To Be Energy Secretary

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By Steven Mufson and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 11, 2008; A01

President-elect Barack Obama has chosen Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who heads the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to be the next energy secretary, and he has picked veteran regulators from diverse backgrounds to fill three other key jobs on his environmental and climate-change team, Democratic sources said yesterday.

Obama plans to name Carol M. Browner, Environmental Protection Agency administrator for eight years under President Bill Clinton, to fill a new White House post overseeing energy, environmental and climate policies, the sources said. Browner, a member of Obama’s transition team, is a principal at the Albright Group.

Obama has also settled on Lisa P. Jackson, recently appointed chief of staff to New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) and former head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, to head the EPA. Nancy Sutley, a deputy mayor of Los Angeles for energy and environment, will chair the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The appointments suggest that Obama plans to make a strong push for measures to combat global warming and programs to support energy innovation. “I think it’s a great team,” said Daniel A. Lashof, director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “On policy, it’s a dramatic contrast based on what I know about the policy direction that all these folks will be bringing to these positions.”

Obama has not yet settled on his choice to head the Interior Department, another key environmental post, and sources close to the transition indicated that several candidates remain under consideration. Barring any last-minute glitches, Obama plans to announce the appointments next week.

Chu, the son of Chinese immigrants, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997 for his work in the “development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light.” But, in an interview last year with The Washington Post, Chu said he began to turn his attention to energy and climate change several years ago. “I was following it just as a citizen and getting increasingly alarmed,” he said. “Many of our best basic scientists [now] realize that this is getting down to a crisis situation.”

He sought and won the top job at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2004, leaving the Stanford University faculty to focus on energy issues. Chu was in London last night and unavailable for comment, but the physicist has been, in the words of his Web site, on a “mission” to make the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory “the world leader in alternative and renewable energy research, particularly the development of carbon-neutral sources of energy.”

The national laboratories fall under the Energy Department, whose budget is devoted largely to dealing with nuclear waste and materials from deactivated nuclear weapons, nuclear submarines and other reactors. But the department is also the conduit for funds that go to innovative energy technologies, including those designed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas.

Browner, a lawyer and native of Florida, was legislative director for then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) and later head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection under then-Gov. Lawton Chiles (D). As the top administrator at the EPA under Clinton, she pushed for tough air-pollution standards that the agency defended against industry lawsuits all the way to the Supreme Court, where the EPA prevailed. In her new role, Browner will need her legislative and administrative experience in a job that will cover everything from climate change to energy policy.

The Obama administration faces an unusually big agenda in this area. The president-elect is expected to tackle cap-and-trade legislation that would put a lid on and then lower greenhouse gas emissions. European governments are expecting him to do that before a crucial climate-change summit a year from now. Meanwhile, energy industries and environmental groups are lobbying on issues such as offshore drilling restrictions, permits for coal plant construction and expansion, nuclear reactor permits and loan guarantees, and tax breaks for renewable energy.

In addition, the new administration has to figure out how to wield the power given to the EPA last year by a Supreme Court ruling that said carbon dioxide emissions should be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. How the EPA uses that power could determine the fate of all sorts of energy-intensive projects. Yesterday, the EPA said it would not finalize rules on new electricity-generating units, disappointing industry lobbyists and punting the issue to the Obama administration.

An African American native of New Orleans, Jackson grew up in the Ninth Ward, the poor and largely black neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Jackson’s mother, stepfather and godmother fled the city as the 2005 storm approached. A few months later, in her swearing-in speech as New Jersey’s environmental chief, Jackson said the devastation wrought by Katrina put her environmental work in a new perspective.

“My family escaped with their lives, but everything else — their homes and possessions, even the family Bible — was lost,” Jackson said. “We were among the lucky ones.”

“The shameful failures of government that the world witnessed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have given me a special appreciation for the importance of public service,” Jackson added. “Those failures have galvanized my commitment to working tirelessly to protect the health and safety of the people of New Jersey and to enhancing our quality of life.”

Environmentalists in New Jersey describe Jackson as a pragmatic but consistent ally who has pushed Corzine to adopt a greener stance during his time in office. In the summer of 2007, Corzine signed the Global Warming Response Act, an ambitious climate measure that pledges to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

“Lisa Jackson played a very large role ensuring passage of that legislation, and helping ensure it was a priority of Governor Corzine,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director of Environment New Jersey. “She’s capable of making the case . . . that deep reductions are possible.”

Democrats familiar with the incoming administration’s thinking say Jackson’s administrative skills were considered important for an agency they see as in “disarray” because of the Bush administration’s record on environmental issues. Before moving to New Jersey, Jackson worked for the EPA in Washington.

Sutley, who has a long record on environmental and natural resources policy, will head a group that has a very limited regulatory role and a small staff. But from its offices on Lafayette Square near the White House, Sutley could be a player in shaping the new administration’s policies on climate change and the environment.

Sutley, a top aide to Browner at the EPA dealing with air-pollution issues, supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries. She previously served in California as an energy adviser to then-Gov. Gray Davis (D) and as a member of the State Water Resources Control Board, where she was responsible for protecting water quality and resources throughout the nation’s most populous state.

Sutley, whose mother is from Argentina, identifies herself as a Latina. She was a member of the California Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender steering committee of Clinton’s campaign and is the first openly gay nominee for a top job in the Obama administration.

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

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