Sugar-loving microbes could help power future cars by turning glucose into molecules found in gasoline, a new study suggests.
Researchers report using biology and chemistry to turn glucose into olefins – a type of hydrocarbon, and one of several types of molecules that make up gasoline.
Olefins make up a small percentage of the molecules in gasoline as it is currently produced.
But the scientists say it is possible the process could be adjusted in the future to generate other types of hydrocarbons as well, including some of the other components of gasoline.
The researchers also note that olefins have non-fuel applications, as they are used in industrial lubricants and as precursors for making plastics.
The study involved feeding glucose to strains of E.coli that do not pose a danger to human health.
Zhen Wang, a biochemist, at the University at Buffalo, led the study with Michelle Chang, at the University of California, Berkeley.
Prof Wang said: “These microbes are sugar junkies, even worse than our kids.”
She added: “We combined what biology can do the best with what chemistry can do the best, and we put them together to create this two-step process.
“Using this method, we were able to make olefins directly from glucose.”
The experiments used genetically engineered E.coli to produce a suite of four enzymes that convert glucose into compounds called 3-hydroxy fatty acids.
As the bacteria consumed the glucose, they also started to make the fatty acids.
To complete the transformation, the researchers used a catalyst to cut off unwanted parts of the fatty acids in a chemical process, generating the olefins.
The enzymes and catalyst were identified through trial and error, with researchers testing different molecules with properties that lent themselves to the tasks at hand.
Prof Wang said: “Making biofuels from renewable resources like glucose has great potential to advance green energy technology.
“Glucose is produced by plants through photosynthesis, which turns carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into oxygen and sugar.
“So the carbon in the glucose – and later the olefins – is actually from carbon dioxide that has been pulled out of the atmosphere.”
The scientists say more research is needed to understand the benefits of the new method and whether it can be scaled up efficiently for making biofuels or for other purposes.
The study is published in Nature Chemistry.