Scientific American reports that like so many elements in the world, it’s all in the use and volume for whether that something, say poison or E. coli, is a friend or foe: “Escherichia coli (E. coli) can give you a severe case of food poisoning or, with a little genetic engineering, a useful plastic.”
San Diego-based scientists at Genomatica have developed the ability to manipulate bacteria into being useful to feed our societal lust for plastics, by producing “butanediol (BDO), a chemical compound used to make everything from spandex to car bumpers, thereby providing a more energy-efficient way of making it without oil or natural gas,” the article says.
Bioengineer Christophe Schilling, president and co-founder of the company, told Scientific American, “The interests of the organism are aligned with our interests: It grows faster when it produces more.”
Bring in the fermentation tanks.
“We grow the bacteria in sugar and water to produce the product, then purify and separate that product out of that water,” Schilling says.
But as everyone doing anything has seen, the cost of doing business has risen, and so it has for Genomatica. And the cost factor is not an insignificant determinant in continuing the study and development of the bacteria-to-plastic concept.
Still, Genomatica CEO Christopher Gann says this isn’t one of those ultra-expensive environmental ideas that pleas for consumer compassion to ignore the typically high cost that can be associated. He says the BDO business isn’t like that. The article says:
“The company plans to use ‘inexpensive, readily available, nonfood-competing renewable feedstocks.’ Then the E. coli can turn these waste sugars into BDO at normal pressure and temperatures under 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius), unlike the petroleum alternatives.
‘This isn’t an aberration where we need $250 per barrel oil to be cost competitive,’ Gann adds.”