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Bacteria Engineered to Eat Switchgrass and Make Transportation Fuels

“Our goal has been to put as much chemistry as we can into microbes,” Keasling says. “For advanced biofuels this requires a microbe with pathways for hydrocarbon production and the biomass-degrading capacity to secrete enzymes that efficiently hydrolyze cellulose and hemicellulose. We’ve now been able to engineer strains of Escherichia coli that can utilize both the cellulose and hemicellulose fractions of switchgrass that’s been pre-treated with ionic liquids.”

E. coli bacteria normally cannot grow on switchgrass, but JBEI researchers engineered strains of the bacteria to express several enzymes that enable them to digest cellulose and hemicellulose and use one or the other for growth. These cellulolytic and hemicellulolytic strains of E. coli, which can be combined as co-cultures on a sample of switchgrass, were further engineered with three metabolic pathways that enabled the E. coli to produce fuel substitute or precursor molecules suitable for gasoline, diesel, and jet engines. It is the first demonstration of E. coli producing all three forms of transportation fuels.

Gregory Bokinsky, a post-doctoral researcher with JBEI’s synthetic biology group, explains that the pre-treatment of the switchgrass with ionic liquids was essential to this demonstration.

“The magic is in the ionic liquid pre-treatment,” Bokinsky says. “If properly optimized, I suspect you could use ionic liquid pre-treatment on any plant biomass and make it readily digestible by microbes. For us it was the combination of biomass from the ionic liquid pretreatment with the engineered E. coli that enabled our success.”

(Berkeley Lab)