Turning Bacteria into Biofuels

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CU professor Ryan Gill thinks he can turn common bacteria into biofuels. And he recently got a big step closer, thanks to a $9.2 million, five-year grant from the Department of Energy.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to take what we have worked on for the past decade to the next level,” says Gill, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and a fellow of CU’s Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute.

Gill will collaborate with Rob Knight of chemistry and biochemistry, and NREL and DOE researchers, to rewire a non-pathogenic strain of E. coli bacteria using genome engineering technologies to make ethylene and isobutanol. The two compounds are widely used commodities that can be converted into gasoline and other chemicals.

The task will not be easy. Among the microbe’s more than 4,000 genes, the team is searching for a small set and how it can be manipulated in a combination of on and off states to change the bacteria’s behavior.

“E. coli is not going to want to make your biofuel at all. It doesn’t do that naturally,” Gill says. “We’re figuring out what control structure we need to rewire in the bug to make it do what we want, not what it wants.”

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