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Microbial research spawns new generation of biofuels

Genetic modification techniques have revolutionized the way life sciences firms discover and produce drugs and vaccines. They’re also poised to transform how the world produces liquid fuel.

Advances in microbial science are powering the second generation of biofuel companies, ones that are looking to produce ethanol, diesel or other fuels from plant materials other than foodstuffs. These microbes, from bluegreen algae to e-coli to soil-residing organisms, have the potential to make the process of breaking down plants and distilling them into ethanol faster, simpler —­ and most importantly, cheaper — than first-generation cellulosic ethanol techniques.

“There’s a wealth of knowledge and technical know-how developed over decades in the biotechnology community,” said Una Ryan, founder of Waltham Technologies Inc., a startup genetically engineering bacteria to clean water and make biofuels. (She stepped down from the CEO role in December, but remains chairman of the company.) “It would be a terrible shame not to use that in the energy space. They need the skills that are aready there and are highly successful in the life sciences.”

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