LS9 Shows Recipe For $50 Oil: Genes That Convert Sugar to Diesel in One Step

7/29/10Follow @xconomy

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that produced the enzymes weren’t very valuable on their own, because they weren’t very efficient, and could only produce minute quantities of alkanes, Schirmer says. So LS9 transferred the genes for those enzymes into a standard industrial workhorse bacteria, E.coli, which could pump out much greater quantities of the alkanes inside a fermentation vat.

The one-step sugar-to-fuel process is considered vital to the LS9 business model, Schirmer says. It’s valuable because it lets nature “do all the work” while other processes some companies are using create a chemical intermediate that requires further refining in order to become fuel.

“This scientific discovery made by the LS9 team is game changing for our company and the advanced biofuels industry,” said Bill Haywood, the company’s CEO, in a statement.

Still, scientists are bound to raise plenty of queestions about this new method. One of the peer reviewers of the paper asked the company to further characterize one of the two key enzymes, an aldehyde decarbonylase, which hadn’t been identified before. This scientist wanted to know more about how this enzyme performs this task, in concert with other metabolites and precursors in the biological pathway. It’s not just an academic question, because better understanding of the molecular environment could lead to further modifications of the process that could make production much more efficient, Schirmer says.

“You could argue that maybe the enzyme as it works now in E. coli is only 20 percent efficient, and if you knew it better, you could get to 100 percent,” Schirmer says. “In order to ask question of how efficient it is, you need additional information. That’s enzymology,” and a further task that’s outside the scope of today’s publication, Schirmer says.

LS9 is now focused on better understanding of the enzymes at work, and how to make the process more efficient, Schirmer says. But as he points out, there wouldn’t be any real way to dive into that question without first pinpointing the genes that might be able to help make fuel cheaply enough to power cars, trucks, and jets.

“If you really want to develop a process of making alkanes, the knowledge of the genes is a foundation for it,” Schirmer says.

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