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By Joan Voight, Illustrations by Leif Parsons

Published Jul 1, 2008 8:04 AM



Modified Bacteria
James Liao

E. coli bacteria may be bad for your stomach, but they can be very good for your ride. Within five years, predicts UCLA's Liao, we may fill 'er up with isobutanol, a biofuel made from genetically modified bacteria taken from non-food plants and agricultural waste. Are water and apples next?

A BETTER BIOFUEL

Ethanol's days may be numbered. Genetically modified bacteria are being recruited to synthesize a new biofuel for our gas-guzzling autos that is cleaner, cheaper and easier to use than ethanol, thanks to technology patented by James Liao, UCLA professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.

A new process using E. coli bacteria allows ethanol manufacturers to turn sugar into an alternative product — isobutanol — which is nearly as energy-dense as gasoline, can be cheaply transported by pipeline like gas (ethanol's tendency to absorb water means it has to be shipped by truck to avoid pipeline corrosion), and can be used in any gasoline-fueled vehicle without modification. Liao predicts that motorists could be fueling up with a blend of isobutanol and gas within the next few years, if everything goes smoothly.

That's the plan of Gevo, a 3-year-old Pasadena, Calif., biofuel company that has licensed Liao's technology and put Liao on its scientific advisory board to guide the commercial development of the new process. "Our process would not be nearly as close to commercialization if we didn't have Dr. Liao's technology," says David Glassner, Gevo's vice president of bioprocessing and engineering. The collaboration grew out of a teacher-student friendship. Gevo board member Doug Cameron was a professor at the University of Wisconsin specializing in metabolic engineering, where Liao was a student in the same field. The men kept in touch over the years and in 2006, Cameron told Liao about a start-up he was backing that was seeking innovative biofuel technologies. Liao jumped at the chance to license his research, with the support of the OIP.

Liao anticipates that in the next few years, isobutanol will come from non-food plants and agricultural waste. By then the bacteria used in the processing also will probably be more versatile than E. coli. "Today's biofuels are just a stepping stone" in the significant impact biofuel will have on reducing our demand for gas, concludes Liao. And you know what that means? Subsequently lower gas prices — and wouldn't that be a welcome change?

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