Scientists use E. coli to produce biofuel for cars

E. coli may be getting an image makeover.

Scientists in the U.K. are aiming to put the bacterium, best known as the culprit behind deadly bouts of food poisoning around the globe, to work in the oil business.

By genetically modifying a strain of the organism, a team at the University of Exeter with support from Shell has turned its natural growth process into a way to produce biodiesel from organic waste.

As with many living creatures, E. coli converts sugars into fatty acids as consumes food. With the tweaks that have been made, these fats can then be turned into hydrocarbon molecules that are so close to the ones found in commercial fuels in use today that there’s no need to blend them with traditional diesel for use in existing cars, as is the case with many biofuels.

But don’t look for it at your local service station just yet.

According to The Sunday Times, it currently takes 100 liters of E. coli 24 hours to produce just one teaspoon of the new fuel, so commercialization is still several years away. However, the biotechnologists behind the process are confident that that it can be refined to a point where the bacteria can churn out the fuel on a one to one basis.

As E. coli can multiply every 20 minutes, the supply is theoretically limited only by the size of the processing plant and the amount of feedstock available, which could include a variety of organic substances ranging from plants to animal waste and even sewage.

It sounds like a dirty job. Good thing they found someone, or something else to do it.