Friday, November 23, 2007

Microogranisms Saving the World

Microbiology appears in our daily lives everywhere, but the most valuable area that it is developing in is industrial biotechnology. Our mother-earth is in crisis; the amount of green house emissions is growing into an uncontrollable state and the amount of un-recyclable waste thrown away is nerve wracking. The human population consumes and consumes to a degree that in a very short time we will be left with no natural resources and a heavily polluted planet. The industrial biotechnology industry is working hard with combined efforts from nanotechnologists to find a cure to our petrochemical hungry lives.

Biotechnologists have devised a method to change foreign produced petroleum into domestically produced bio-fuels. This process began as a very clunky, slow and expensive procedure; however, it is now paving the way as a new inexpensive and environmentally friendly approach to power our vehicles. The idea for a new reusable transportation fuel was introduce with the notion that carbon from sugars in cellulose walls would be used instead of carbon from dinosaur fossils. A solution in using advanced enzymatic systems to break down the carbon skeletons from cellulosic biomass, such as crop residues, to sugars that feed yeast was introduced. The yeast produces ethanol as a metabolic product which in turn is the fuel that feeds cars. There are a couple of problems posed with this solution unfortunately. The first being, scientists needed to make it more economically viable by alternately using corn stovers or corn stocks (complex sugars) instead of corn (simple sugar) as a lower cost source. As well, technicians needed enzymes that would function in the high temperatures required for faster production of sugars. The first answer was brought with the discovery of Trichoderma reesei, a common soil fungus, that can manufacture a large amount of enzymes that break down cellulose. Like any plant enzyme, it had a natural tendency to denature, change shape, when exposed to extreme temperatures commanding it nonfunctional. So, scientists started to collect extremophiles, deep ocean micro-organisms called diatoms, which could function at these high temperatures. Diatoms build very elaborate silicon structures with intricate machinery to protect themselves in extreme environments. This posed a problem to scientists wanting to reproduce them by synthetic means. Nano-technicians stepped in and applied a new level of understanding to make reproduction feasible. Soon after, it didn’t take long for scientist to manipulate T. reesei to take the nature of diatoms. A new microbe was constructed that could withstand these high temperatures and cleave cellulose into individual sugars freeing them for ethanol production by yeast. Odd to think that one gallon of this cellulosic ethanol can replace three gallons of imported oil, which powers our motor vehicles, not at the sympathy of earth, but offered in safe emissions.


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1 comment:

Dominic B. said...

We try to synthesize and we are pretty good at it but Nature beat us everytime. Biomimicry is the way to go...we have to understand that evolution tried many combinations to come with what can be seen now...