A Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University research team has developed a process that removes a key obstacle to producing low-cost, renewable biofuels from bacteria. The team has reprogrammed photosynthetic microbes to secrete high-energy fats, making byproduct recovery and conversion to biofuels easier and potentially more commercially viable.

“The real costs involved in any biofuel production are harvesting the goodies and turning them into fuel,” said Roy Curtiss, of the Institute’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology and professor in the School of Life Sciences. “This whole system that we have developed is a means to a green recovery of materials not requiring energy dependent physical or chemical processes.”

Curtiss is part of a large, multidisciplinary ASU team that has been focusing on optimizing photosynthetic microbes, called cyanobacteria, as a renewable source of biofuels. These microbes are easy to genetically manipulate and have a potentially higher yield than any plant crops currently being used for the production of transportation fuels.

But, until now, harvesting the fats from the microbes has required many costly additional processing steps that contribute up to 70 percent to 80 percent of the total cost of their renewable biofuel production, making them uncompetitive compared with petroleum production costs.

Cyanobacteria have a tough, protective set of outer membranes that help the bacteria thrive in even harsh surroundings, creating the pond scum often found in backyard swimming pools. Like plants, they are dependent upon sunlight, water and carbon dioxide for growth.

To get cyanobacteria to more readily release their precious, high fat cargo, Curtiss and postdoctoral researcher Xinyao Liu, placed a suite of genes into photosynthetic bacteria that produced enzymes to degrade membrane lipids, poking holes in the membranes to release free fatty acids into the water. In a clever feat of genetic reprogramming of the cells, the enzymes are only produced when carbon dioxide – a vital ingredient of bacterial growth – is removed from their environment.

“We first freed up fatty acids by triggering self-destruction of the bacteria by adding nickel,” Liu said, “but this is not so good for the environment. So, this time we did it in a smarter way – by stopping carbon dioxide supply. The strategy of adding nothing for recovering fuels from biomass is designed to drastically reduce processing costs.”