They start out as industrial yeast or nonpathogenic strains of E. coli, but LS9 modifies them by custom-designing their DNA. Because crude oil is only a few molecular stages removed from the fatty acids normally excreted by yeast or E. coli during fermentation, it does not take much fiddling to get the desired result.
Using genetically modified bugs for fermentation is essentially the same as using natural bacteria to produce ethanol, although the energy-intensive final process of distillation is virtually eliminated because the bugs excrete a substance that is almost pump-ready.
"Our plan is to have a demonstration-scale plant operational by 2010 and, in parallel, we'll be working on the design and construction of a commercial-scale facility to open in 2011," says Mr Pal, adding that if LS9 used Brazilian sugar cane as its feedstock, its fuel would probably cost about $50 a barrel.
Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol
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