According to new research published Wednesday in the journal Cell, scientists using a combination of gene splicing and accelerated evolution techniques have made E. coli into an autotroph [haaretz.com] that produces its biomass using atmospheric carbon.
The study was carried out at the Weizmann Institute of Science [haaretz.com] in Rehovot.
Prof. Ron Milo, of Weizmann’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, in whose laboratory the research was carried out, explains that all organisms in nature are either “producers” or “consumers” of sugar and other foods, such as fats. The producers are algae, plants and a few kinds of bacteria living in extreme environments. These bacteria draw carbon dioxide from their environment and with the help of the sun’s energy, they fix it and create a complex molecule – like sugars – that are essential for life.
The rest of the organisms exist on the work of those plants and algae and are nourished by them – thus receiving the sugars they need to exist. In scientific terms, the “producers” are called “autotrophs” and the consumers heterotrophs. In Prof. Milo’s lab, the team worked for 10 years until they managed to turn a heteotrophic bacterium into an autotroph – from a consumer to a producer.
The bacteria currently require approximately 100x the concentration of CO2 present in the atmosphere to survive, but the scientists are working to reduce this further.
The next phase of the research, according to Milo, is to improve the efficiency of the carbon fixing process
Among the potential eventual applications are carbon neutral fuel production and scrubbing of CO2 during industrial processes.