Jun
19
2008

Hey, bacteria, when you’re done giving us diarrhea, I’ve got a job for you

It's an important job I've got for you...: That's right: pump my gas. I'm not getting out of the car.
It's an important job I've got for you...: That's right: pump my gas. I'm not getting out of the car.Courtesy thefiveten77
Using microorganisms to do our dirty work is all the rage these days. And, you know, they deserve it—they’ve spent so much time making us sick that they’re due for a little bit of productive action (and don’t bring up gut microbes, water treatment, or natural decomposition. I’m just not interested in anything that contradicts me).

It’s encouraging, then, to see that scientists in California have genetically engineered microorganisms (like yeast and strains of e. coli that eat organic garbage and poop crude oil. Is “poop” the right verb? It is? It’s exactly the right verb? Oh, good.

Currently the process requires a lot of equipment for a pretty small output. A room-sized computer and fermenting machine produces about a barrel of oil a week—America consumes about 143 million barrels of oil each week. And, at the moment, the process isn’t super cheap.

However, the scientists involved are hopeful that the necessary equipment can be shrunk, and the product can be produced more efficiently. With a commercial-scale facility (planned construction in 2011), using Brazilian sugarcane as feedstock (not the best crop, but that’s another post), oil could be produced at a cost of about $50 a barrel. Not bad, compared to the current price of oil hovering around $140 a barrel.

The process should be carbon neutral or negative too. That is to say, the CO2 produced by burning the fuel produced should be less than that pulled from the air by the feedstock materials.

It’s all very interesting, but I’m afraid that this sort of technology is forcing biotechnology away from its true purpose—microorganisms working for us in the very literal sense. The day e. coli wanders out into my yard and mows my lawn is the day I’ll get excited. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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