by Gypsy Achong
A quick look at Joule Biotechnologiesʼ patent filing suggests that they are engineering a fast growing bacterium – Escherichia coli – capable of converting light and carbon dioxide into fuel. The advantages of using E. coli over algae are clear:
- E. coli is significantly easier to genetically engineer than algae. Thus, Jouleʼs culture will allow greater flexibility in output of fuels / chemicals as policies and product prices change
- E. coli grows ~10x faster than algae. As long as the metabolic load of photosynthesis does not slow down growth, Jouleʼs culture has potential to capture light at a greater rate than algae
- Also, algae grow slower if light intensity gets too high. Jouleʼs plan to use a solar concentrator suggests that their engineered organism is less susceptible to light intensity.
In addition, use of a solar concentrator presents an opportunity for increasing light capture efficiency of a reactor. The benefits of Jouleʼs approach have potential to be game-changing, and they have assembled an A-team to deliver. Resumes of the inventors, Eric Devroe, Dan Robertson, Frank Skraly and Christian Ridley, include a whoʼs who of prestigious research labs and synthetic biology companies including Diversa (now Verenium), Metabolix and Codon Devices. George Church, a Harvard professor of genetics and serial entrepreneur, is an advisor (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Church).
Still, development risks are high. Creating a photosynthetic organism from scratch is not facile – photosynthesis is one of the most complicated metabolic pathways that exist in nature, and includes membrane proteins – typically the hardest proteins to move between organisms. But perhaps Joule is a company to keep on the radar.
Gypsy Achong is a guest blogger on CleantechBlog.com. She was most recently a management consultant at the Boston Consulting Group, focusing on energy and biotechnology. She has a Ph.D. in environmental microbiology from Stanford University.