Researchers look to E. coli for biodiesel

By Luke Geiver
Posted Sept. 8, 2010

A team of researchers from Rutgers University and Harvard University is working with a well-known microorganism to aid in the production of biodiesel. The research, based on the E. coli microorganism, commonly associated with food poisoning, is being led by Desmond Lun, associate professor of computer science at Rutgers. Lun and his team are working to modify the genetic make-up of the E. coli organism, creating a strain of the bacteria that overproduces fatty acids which can then be used in biodiesel production. "Biodiesel is something that we can generate quite easily," Lun said. "E. coli has been used as a lab organism for more than 60 years and it's well studied. We know a lot about its genetics and how to manipulate it."

Lun, who received his doctorate in computer science from MIT, will work with his team to analyze a computer model of the E. coli genome, looking for ways to synthetically alter the strain and traits of the organism. The modeling will help the team track the changes to the organism if certain alterations are made, most notably enzyme removal that would increase the bacteria's ability to produce higher volumes of fatty acids. While E. coli is highly studied and understood, Lun noted that the work on the organism for biodiesel use will be "quite drastic" and require "major intervention."

Instead of performing minor changes to specific genes he said, the work will modify large sections of the genome and put in "entirely new traits rather than modifying existing traits." By using the computer modeling approach, the team will speed up the development process and make it a faster, better process according to Lun. There is currently no timetable for work on the new strain.

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