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Teaching a microbe to make fuel

A humble soil bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha has a natural tendency, whenever it is stressed, to stop growing and put all its energy into making complex carbon compounds. Now scientists at MIT have taught this microbe a new trick: They've tinkered with its genes to persuade it to make fuel ā€” specifically, a kind of alcohol called isobutanol that can be directly substituted for, or blended with, gasoline.

Christopher Brigham, a research scientist in MIT's biology department who has been working to develop this bioengineered bacterium, is currently trying to get the organism to use a stream of carbon dioxide as its source of carbon, so that it could be used to make fuel out of emissions. Brigham is co-author of a paper on this research published this month in the journal Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology.

Brigham explains that in its natural state, when the microbe's source of essential nutrients (such as nitrate or phosphate) is restricted, "it will go into carbon-storage mode," essentially storing away food for later use when it senses that resources are limited.

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