By genetically altering a microorganism that hangs around the blazingly hot waters near geothermal vents, researchers from the University of Georgia have shown that carbon dioxide can be pulled from the atmosphere and converted into useful organic chemicals — including biofuels.
Essentially, the scientists created a microorganism that treats carbon dioxide the same way that plants do, which is to absorb it and convert it into something useful. Plants get their energy through photosynthesis, a process that transforms water and CO2 into sugars. But it's difficult for scientists to extract these sugars because they're trapped inside the plant's cellular walls.
To overcome this problem, a research team led by Michael Adams of UGA's Bioenergy Systems Research Institute genetically modified a microbe called Pyrococcus furiosus to take advantage of its CO2 absorbing qualities. They fixed it such that the microbe could feed at dramatically lower temperatures, including some 30°C below the optimal growth temperature of the organism.
Then, by adding a hydrogen gas to the process, the researchers created a chemical reaction that turned CO2 into 3-hydroxypropionic acid, which is one of the top 12 industrial chemical building blocks (for manufacturing such things as acrylics and other products).
"What this discovery means is that we can remove plants as the middleman," said Adams. "We can take carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and turn it into useful products like fuels and chemicals without having to go through the inefficient process of growing plants and extracting sugars from biomass."
Looking ahead, further modifications of the microbe could yield a version that generates a host of other useful products, including fuel from CO2. As a bonus, when the fuel produced by P. furiosus is burned, it releases the same amount of CO2 used to create it, thus making it carbon neutral.
Read the entire study at PNAS.
Image: Shutterstock/Oleksandr Kalinichenko.