Smart idea, nicely executed

cyanobacteria by nttrbx

Self-destructing bacteria improve renewable biofuel production
[Via Eureka! Science News – Popular science news]

An Arizona State University research team has developed a process that removes a key obstacle to producing lower-cost, renewable biofuels. The team has programmed a photosynthetic microbe to self-destruct, making the recovery of high-energy fats–and their biofuel byproducts–easier and potentially less costly.


This is a creative way to solve a hard problem. I’d call it a neat trick but some people would misunderstand and might try to smear their reputation. The cyanobacteria have been engineered to produce fats that can be used for fuel. One hard part of the purification process is getting the fats out of the bacteria. The cell walls of the cyanobacteria have to be broken and then all the cell debris removed.

Here, they solved the problem by having the bacteria burst open on their own. This research group added a set of genes from viruses that infect bacteria (bacteriophages). The effect of these genes is to eventually cause the cyanobacteria to burst, releasing their precious horde of fats. This makes separating out the fats much, much easier.

Self-destructin bacteria, indeed. Plus, you really have to appreciate a researcher who describes his collaborator thusly:

If he were a baseball player, he wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than a 1000 home runs in 10 years. Xinyao is always swinging for the fences.

Because many researchers really do talk like that, especially those of us who really like baseball.