From: Rhett Butler, MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published January 23, 2012 08:52 AM

Biofuel breakthrough: kelp could power cars

Scientists have devised a new way to produce ethanol directly from seaweed, offering the potential to generate biofuels that don't compete with terrestrial food production and won't suck up scarce freshwater, reports a study published today in Science.


Researchers from the Bio Architecture Lab in Berkeley, California engineered E. coli bacterium to digest brown seaweed and produce ethanol as a byproduct. Kelp, which grows up to a meter a day and is abundant in temperate coastal regions, is a type of brown seaweed.

"BAL's technology to ferment a seaweed feedstock to renewable fuels and chemicals has suggested an entirely new pathway for biofuels development, one that is no longer constrained to terrestrial sources," said Jonathan Burbaum of the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency, which helped fund the research. "When fully developed and deployed, large scale seaweed cultivation combined with BAL's technology promises to produce renewable fuels and chemicals without forcing a tradeoff with conventional food crops such as corn or sugarcane."

Scientists have long struggled to produce ethanol from seaweed. The stumbling block was alginate, one of four kinds of sugars produced by seaweed. Alginate — a complex polysaccharide — is difficult for microbes to breakdown. The breakthrough came when the researchers identified a biochemical pathway used by Vibrio splendidus, a marine microbe that feeds on brown seaweed, and inserted the responsible genes into a strain of E. coli. The bacterium was designed to convert the seaweed sugars directly into ethanol.

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