Bacterium Gets Wheels Turning on Ethanol Fuel

Editor's Note: This video contains no audioRight beaker, Zymetis' enzymes breaking down newspaper into ethanol-ready sugars over a 36-hour time period; left beaker, a salt water control sample, also with newspaper. Zymetis' commercial enzymes will break down cellulosic material at a significantly more rapid pace. Video by
By Susan Kinzie and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 10, 2008

A strain of bacteria accidentally found in the Chesapeake Bay more than 20 years ago -- a bug that decomposes everything from algae to newspapers to crab shells -- could help produce cheaper fuel, according to scientists at the University of Maryland.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) will tout the work of professors Steven Hutcheson and Ronald Weiner on campus today in announcing that Zymetis, a U-Md. spinoff company, will use the organism to generate ethanol.

The hope is that the bacterium can be used to produce ethanol more efficiently and inexpensively and in effect recycle junk into energy. The bacterium, which is very difficult to find in nature but easily reproduced in the lab, has turned bench scientists into entrepreneurs.

It's a remarkable bug, Hutcheson said. "There's nothing out there that compares to it."

With environmental, economic and geopolitical reasons to find alternatives to gasoline, there's a sense of urgency behind scientists' drive to make cheap fuels out of such plants as grasses and wood. Other scientists said that the U-Md. research might mark a significant step in that struggle but that it was difficult to judge the discovery in detail without more information.

Ethanol is, essentially, fermented plant matter: Parts of the plants are broken down into sugar, which is converted into a kind of alcohol that is usable as fuel. For now, most U.S. ethanol is made from corn, but scientists want a source that isn't also sought after for food.

They are now seeking to make fuel out of such things as wood chips, cornstalks and a prairie plant called switch grass. But the fuel in these plants is locked up chemically in such substances as cellulose, which nature has engineered not to break down, unlike the starches in grains.

"That's the reason why you eat bread but you build houses out of wood," said Philip Pienkos of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

That's where this bug comes in. The bacterium Saccarophagus degradans, or sugar eater, can create a mix of enzymes that degrades plant matter. It has the largest known concentration of enzymes that eat carbohydrates, Hutcheson said.

"It basically is the ultimate bottom feeder," said Jonathan Dinman, an associate professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at U-Md. "It eats what nobody else will eat -- cornstalks, leftover chaff from hay or whatever -- and can turn that into ethanol."

Some researchers now use a pretreatment that softens the plants, then another treatment to turn cellulose into sugar, then a fermentation that turns the sugar into alcohol. Several scientists said that if the U-Md. research could make this process faster and more efficient, it could produce serious savings.

"If this guy's got the answer to it, heck, yeah," it would be the product of the year, said Mark E. Downing, of the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

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