Want to Run Your Car on Bacteria?

According to a report, microbiologists at M.I.T. have “swapped out the genes of the R. eutropha bacterium so that it can create isobutanol — an alcohol that can replace or blend with gasoline used by vehicles.”

“We’ve shown that, in continuous culture, we can get substantial amounts of isobutanol,” said one researcher.

Bear in mind, however, the opening paragraph of the piece:

A humble soil bacteria has become a genetically engineered factory capable of making fuel for cars. But the project still has to get out of the lab and scale up to industrial-size production.

That “but” means everything. Biotechnology moves very slowly. There is always a gaping disconnect between the knowledge and abilities of applied scientists at any given time and the hyped media portrayal of them as ushering in an immediate revolution in medicine or energy. For instance, when compared to the hype that has accompanied every major advance in cancer research over the past four decades – including the discovery of recombinant DNA methods – the fruits of such advances have been relatively modest.

This research project still sounds in its primitive stages. What tipped me off? The fact that the reporter had to resort to writing about the hopes of the researchers rather than the actual results:

For their next trick, the MIT researchers hope the genetically engineered bacteria could eventually transform carbon dioxide into fuel — a way of using up the greenhouse gas that contributes heavily to global warming. The bacteria already naturally use hydrogen and carbon dioxide for growing.

The researchers “hope.” These are supremely intelligent, talented scientists. But “hope” in the world of biotechnology is measured not in years but in decades.


Image courtesy shutterstock /  Julien Tromeur

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