London: Scientists have for the first time engineered the harmless gut bacteria E coli to generate renewable propane, a gas that can power cars and heat homes.
The development is a step towards commercial production of a source of fuel that could one day provide an alternative to fossil fuels.
Propane is an appealing source of cleaner fuel because it has an existing global market. It is already produced as a by-product during natural gas processing and petroleum refining, but both are finite resources, researchers said.
In its current form it makes up the bulk of LPG (liquid petroleum gas), which is used in many applications, from central heating to camping stoves and conventional motor vehicles.
In a new study, a team of scientists from Imperial College London and the University of Turku in Finland used Escherichia coli to interrupt the biological process that turns fatty acids into cell membranes.
The researchers used enzymes to channel the fatty acids along a different biological pathway, so that the bacteria made engine-ready renewable propane instead of cell membranes.
Their ultimate goal is to insert this engineered system into photosynthetic bacteria, so as to one day directly convert solar energy into chemical fuel.
"Although this research is at a very early stage, our proof of concept study provides a method for renewable production of a fuel that previously was only accessible from fossil reserves," said Dr Patrik Jones, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London.
"Although we have only produced tiny amounts so far, the fuel we have produced is ready to be used in an engine straight away. This opens up possibilities for future sustainable production of renewable fuels that at first could complement, and thereafter replace fossil fuels like diesel, petrol, natural gas and jet fuel," said Jones.
The scientists chose to target propane because it can easily escape the cell as a gas, yet requires little energy to transform from its natural gaseous state into a liquid that is easy to transport, store and use.
Using E coli as a host organism, the scientists interrupted the biological process that turns fatty acids into cell membranes.
By stopping this process at an early stage they could remove butyric acid, a nasty smelling compound that is an essential precursor for propane production.
To interrupt the process, the researchers discovered a new variant of an enzyme called thioesterase which specifically targets fatty acids and releases them from the natural process.
They then used a second bacterial enzyme, called CAR, to convert butyric acid into butyraldehyde. Finally, they added a recently discovered enzyme called aldehyde-deformylating oxygenase (ADO), which is known to naturally create hydrocarbons, in order to form propane.
The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.