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Can microorganisms be a solution to the world's energy problems?
Date:7/10/2008

Microorganisms once reigned supreme on the Earth, thriving by filling every nook and cranny of the environment billions of years before humans first arrived on the scene. Now, this ability of microorganisms to grow from an almost infinite variety of food sources may play a significant role in bailing out society from its current energy crisis, according to the Biodesign Institute's Bruce Rittmann, Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, and Rolf Halden.

In a new issue on "microbial ecology and sustainable energy" in the prestigious journal Nature Reviews Microbiology, the Biodesign researchers outline paths where bacteria are the best hope in producing renewable energy in large quantities without damaging the environment or competing with our food supply.

Two distinct, but complementary approaches will be needed. The first is to use microbes to convert biomass to useful energy. Different microorganisms can grow without oxygen to take this abundant organic matter and convert it to useful forms of energy such as methane, hydrogen, or even electricity. The second uses bacteria or algae that can capture sunlight to produce new biomass that can be turned into liquid fuels, like biodiesel, or converted by other microorganisms to useful energy. Both approaches currently are intensive areas of biofuel research at the Biodesign Institute, which has a joint project with petroleum giant BP to harvest photosynthetic bacteria to produce renewable liquid fuels, such as biodiesel.

What is it about bacteria that make them an attractive tool for a bioenergy researcher? Consider that one species of bacteria, the human gut bacterium E. coli, has become the workhorse of the multi-trillion dollar global biotech industry. Might other unearthed microbial treasures have the same potential in bioenergy applications?

The Biodesign team, in their Nature Review Microbiology perspective article, outlines the prospects for such applications. They b
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Contact: Joe Caspermeyer
joseph.caspermeyer@asu.edu
480-727-0369
Arizona State University
Source:Eurekalert

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