Friday, January 23, 2009

Microbes and Gene Engineering at the Heart of Future Fuels Production

Scientists are slowly learning to produce in hours and days what took nature millions of years to produce. Ancient deposits of fossil fuels have been useful in jump starting the industrial age of Earth, but eventually humans will need to learn how to make their own fuels on a "pay as you go" basis.

A recent publication in Springer's Journal of Industrial Microbiology & Biotechnology provides a review of microbial approaches to the production of new fuels, by Professor Arnold Demain.
Demain reviews how microbes can help solve the energy problem, and focuses on the organisms that ferment lignocellulosic biomass to produce bioethanol, biobutanol, biodiesel and biohydrocarbons in particular. His review also highlights how the use of these biofuels would help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The plants that produce the biomass remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as part of their growth and normal metabolism.

Demain also highlights a number of important commercial developments, including the establishment of biotechnology companies in the biofuel sector since 2006, either alone or with companies of the petroleum and chemical industries. In addition, there have been a number of U.S. Government initiatives pushing for and backing the development of biofuels.

Demain concludes that: "What remains is a major effort and challenge to biochemical engineering at the many new plants being built for biofuel production. The new processes have to be scaled up and carried out in cost-effective way. The future of biofuels looks very bright...the best is yet to come." _AtoZMaterials _ via _Biotechnology
In other publications, Demain has written:
Life on earth is not possible without microorganisms. Microbes have contributed to industrial science for over 100 years. They have given us diversity in enzymatic content and metabolic pathways. The advent of recombinant DNA brought many changes to industrial microbiology. New expression systems have been developed, biosynthetic pathways have been modified by metabolic engineering to give new metabolites, and directed evolution has provided enzymes with modified selectability, improved catalytic activity and stability. More and more genomes of industrial microorganisms are being sequenced giving valuable information about the genetic and enzymatic makeup of these valuable forms of life. _MolecularBiotechnology
and further:
In order for a natural product to become a commercial reality, laboratory improvement of its production process is a necessity since titers produced by wild strains could never compete with the power of synthetic chemistry. Strain improvement by mutagenesis has been a major success. It has mainly been carried out by ‘‘brute force’’ screening or selection, but modern genetic technologies have entered the scene in recent years. For every new strain developed genetically, there is further opportunity to raise titers by medium modifications. _JInd.MicrobiologyBiotech
Beyond using microbes such as algae, yeast, and bacteria, the possibilities of modifying the genomes of multicellular organisms such as plants and animals to produce fuels and useful chemicals / catalysts / pharmaceuticals are growing more realistic.

Despite a significant economic downturn plus a new US administration that aims to make the economy far worse than it is at present, universities continue to train new researchers who must do experiments and publish the results. The momentum of scientific discovery is immense -- despite the massive waste of resources being shunted to unscientific endeavours like catastrophic greenhouse warming.

New scientific discoveries contain the seeds of entire new industries and support structures, the building of which will pull a recalcitrant economy out of its doldrums. Obama, Pelosi, Boxer, Schumer and the other Luddites and Paleo-Socialists who currently hold unprecedented political power will try to keep the economy mired in their new Dark Ages of feudalist fascism. It is unlikely that the restless forces of human nature and evolution will allow them to take their repressive reich beyond a certain point.

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