The future of industrial production doesn't depend on drilling for oil and mining minerals. It depends on biology. Scientists are transforming microbes and other life forms into tiny, specialized factories that extrude plastic, turn waste water into fuel, and even clean up radioactive waste.
Here are five experiments in genetic engineering that are making the world a better place.
Turning waste water into fuel and drinkable water
In the twenty-first century, demand for clean drinking water is going to grow enormously. Sure, our planet is covered in water, but current filtration methods are costly, making it difficult to turn salt water or waste water into something we can drink. But a filtration system powered in part by "exoelectrogenic biofilms," or specially-prepared Geobacteraceae, bacteria that are electrically conductive. By carefully manipulating these bacteria, researchers can filter water while also generating fuel as a byproduct.
Using a modified fuel cell, Penn State environmental engineer Bruce Logan and his research group conducted a series of experiments on waste water from a California winery. The group added waste water to a fuel cell which already runs on the exoelectrogenic biofilm. As water rushes over the films, the bacteria consume the waste water, releasing protons. These protons than cannot pass through an oppositely charged barrier that is present. This causes negatively charged ions in an adjacent chamber, where waste water is held, to cross the barrier into the waste water chamber, removing a significant component of contamination in the process. This is then repeated in a third chamber. The current process can remove 90% of the salt from salt water, leaving the water in a brackish state, so an increase in efficiency is needed before drinking water could be readily obtained. At the same time, processing the waste produces methane gas and other gases, which can be used as fuel.
Another group of researchers have created a biofilm that can be used to separate waste components from water in over a thousand liters in less than a day. This biotechnology was created by researchers at Sam Houston University and supported by funding from the Department of Defense, with the system currently deployment alongside troops in Afghanistan.
Using algae to make jet fuel
Microbes have been shown to produce useful fuel oil in the past. Now there's a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiative to produce jet fuel, a longer chain hydrocarbon than normal fuel oil, from algae at a cost of $3 per gallon after proper refinement. This would be a boon to the aviation industry, and in particular the military, as it could be make use of local materials and cost considerably less than the normal $6-7 per gallon of jet-ready fuel. This program should be up and flying by 2013.
Cleaning up radioactive waste
Deinococcus radiodurans is called an "extremophile" because it can withstand high doses of radiation. While the bacteria itself cannot eliminate the radioactive components of waste, it can be used to decrease the threat from toxic organic pollutants and heavy metals like mercury. While this might not sound amazing at the forefront, the removal of these substances streamline the handling of waste considerably and limit the personal danger and cost of handling radioactive waste. The removal of these wastes also decreases the long-term storage space necessary for radioactive materials with extremely long half lives. Microbes have also been used clean up more traditional spills, such as the Deepwater Horizon spill that still affects the Gulf of Mexico.
Plastic, a substance that's pretty much miraculous for its durability, flexibility, and low cost, is typically made using fossil fuels and dangerous chemicals. But researchers have recently found that genetic modification of E. coli can spur the creation of 1,4-Butanediol, a crucial ingredient in plastic that is usually made with toxic chemicals like formaldehyde. The modified bacteria produce butanediol as part of their reproductive process. E. coli can be allowed to grow in 13,000 liter fermentation tanks, and require minimal observation (other than feeding the brood with sugars, but E. coli are unlike Gremlins, as they can be fed after midnight) and yielding no problematic waste products. Three billion pounds of 1,4-Butanediol are made this way each year. Genomatica, the company at the forefront of this research, started commercializing the process in beta testing that started last year.
A microbial plastic production process has also been approved by the FDA, for Tepha Inc., a company working with scientists at MIT who research the creation of biodegradable sutures. These sutures have been shown to be stronger and more flexible than most synthetic suture material on the market, and would be used in situations where the sutures would be within the patient's body for a long period of time, like ligament repair and abdominal surgeries.
Strains of the bacteria Clostridium can target, enter, and replicate within tumors. Current research is looking at non-harmful versions of Clostridium that could be engineered to carry cancer therapy agents directly to tumors. Bacteria has long been known to affect cancer in patients, with one of the first well-documented reports coming in the late 19th Century when physicians noticed that patients hospitalized with Erysipelas, an acute skin infection caused by Streptococcus pyogenes that causes red, orange peel-like lesions, also experienced a regression in cancer activity during the course of the infection.
Mass producing proteins for research
Biochemists often need to mass produce specific proteins for their research. It's hard to observe a protein's physical characteristics and figure out how it works if you only have a little bit of the stuff, and unfortunately it's very hard to buy giant amounts of proteins that are interesting for academic researchers. Not too long ago, and in rare cases now, researchers working their way to a Ph.D. would blend up hundreds of pounds of organs to get microgram quantities of a desired protein. (This practice was widespread up to the 1970s, which is one reason why your Biochemistry professor might be so crabby.) But those days are mostly over. E. coli and other microbes are now genetically engineered to make larger quantities of a desired protein than would normally be created. If those proteins turn out to help in medical research or the production of jet fuel, all the better.
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