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... led by synthetic biologist Yasuo Yoshikuni, the team took the workhorse bacterium E. coli and within it, patched together the genes and other parts needed for superior seaweed-to-fuel conversion. From the marine bacterium Pseudoalteromonas, the scientists used genes for an enzyme that cuts alginate into smaller molecular bits. The researchers rigged these genes to a cellular transport system already found in E. coli, so the bacterium would secrete the alginate-slicing enzyme into its environment.


Part of the beauty of the system is its flexibility, says Yoshikuni. Because the alginate-degrading enzyme is released into the environment, initial breakdown products can easily be harvested for creating useful compounds such as precursors to nylon or plastics. And when E. coli consume the broken-down alginate the bacteria generate a lot of pyruvate, a chemical intermediate useful for making fuels such as butanol or biodiesel.

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